Blow-ins and Little Green Men

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“Grandad,” said my four year old grandson, “what do Aliens call us?” Little boys delight in questions and jokes. Ideally a question can also be a joke. ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ That’s a cracker, as the late, great Frank Carson used to say. ‘Frank Carson, News at Ten, Balbriggan.’  Something to do with the way he told them. ‘They’re building new houses in Balbriggan. They’ve no chimneys on them. The people have to carry the smoke out in buckets. Ha,ha,ha!’ Strange goings-on in Balbriggan indeed. But I have digressed—by four miles. ‘Why did the chewing gum cross the road?’ Another cracker. ‘Because it was stuck to the chicken’s foot. Boom, boom!.’ “No, but Grandad, what do Aliens call us?” Pay attention. Stop rambling. “I don’t know. What do Aliens call us?”  “They call us Aliens! because they think we look funny and we are Aliens to them.” That’s a good point. Poor bare, forked creatures. We do look a bit weird, considered objectively. It is a well known fact that Aliens abduct people all the time and carry them away in flying saucers. They take them apart to see what makes them tick. Or is it ‘thick’?

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I have a lifetime’s experience of taking things apart to see what’s wrong with them; clocks, washing machines, bikes. I marvel at the ingenuity of the makers; the beauty of the finely machined parts; the intricacy of the mechanisms, but sadly, I have had very little success in reassembling them into working order…..probably just like the Aliens. People who have been dismantled and reassembled in flying saucers, always seem to have a screw loose here and there. Aliens are not as clever as they’re cracked up to be. Anyway, they’re just blow-ins. Came down with the last shower. Who do they think they are, coming down here and telling us what make us tick?  (Watch the spelling there.) Crowd of bloody know-alls. Probably came over the Hoar Rock Hill playin’ penny whistles.

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The news is that out there, beyond our solar system, there is a star, not unlike our Sun and a planet possibly similar to ours, with an atmosphere that could possibly sustain life. It’s 1400 light years away, in round figures. Next thing we’ll have bloody Aliens, who set out around the time of our Dark Ages, travelling at the speed of light to come here and tell us how to do things. Damned cheek! We’re doing fine, thank you very much. Bloody blow-ins! We are intelligent life-forms, as you have already ascertained from your numerous dissections and experiments. And by the way….I would like my frontal lobe and my liver back please…..if it’s not too inconvenient, of course.

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Intelligent life at work.

It is probably a shameful thing to admit, but my parents were blow-ins to Skerries, one in 1903 and the other in 1939. I was born here, which might make me a ‘local’. I might even be entitled to voice an opinion, tentatively, in an assembly of the people. In a few hundred years I may be able pass myself off as a native. If I live that long, my contemporaries will all be dead. I will be able to bang on about things that blow-ins and young whipper-snappers couldn’t possibly know about.  Nobody will be able to contradict me. Bred, born and buttered here, as a well known (native) Skerries man once said. While I’m at it, I must confess that my late and much loved mother-in-law was a Balbriggan woman, which means that I married, 51 years ago, a half-Balbriggan girl.  A desirable alien, perhaps. I’m grateful to my blow-in parents too.

I blame the Great Northern Railway. Since the 1830s railways have been stirring the gene pool, sending blow-ins all around the country to intermingle, putting it delicately, with the natives. This is supposed to be good for the health of the race. All sorts of hop-off-me thumb jackeens and culchies, intermingling with real Skerries people…..Don’t get me started. That lad, Saint Patrick, bloody Welshman; your men, the Vikings; bloody Normans! We were grand the way we were. Now we have AIB Bank encouraging decent, hard-working people with bright, engaging children, to put down roots here in our town. Where will it all end?

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Orson Welles scared the daylights out of people with his Martian invasion. That was only on the radio. We never even got to see them. There was panic and a rush to judgement. They do look a bit funny all the same. It’s rude to stare. If they had ears, now, like we have.  Like normal earthlings have….Ears would be good.

 There was this Skerries woman who was married to a Balbriggan man for fifty years. The poor, decent man died. Friends, sympathising with her at the funeral spoke of what a good man he had been. “He was,”she agreed, wistfully. “He was a good man…..for a stranger.” Maybe it’s time to give blow-ins and Aliens a break. It’s a very small, round world. We all get our turn.

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What’s all the noise about?

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This is the time of year when we are invited to look back at the past and look forward with anticipation, to the coming year. Perhaps this is because the newspapers need material to fill their pages. The ancient Romans appointed the god Janus, a celestial janitor, to keep guard over the door of the dwelling. Janus had the advantage of having two faces, one to look inwards and one to keep a sharp lookout on the world outside. Would you trust anyone with two faces?  Would you trust someone whose life is spent, standing in a draught, beside a whistling keyhole or a rattling  letterbox? I have more confidence in the lads with the black leather jackets and shaven heads. They rock back and forth on their heels. They shrug, ready for every emergency, particularly at festive times, like New Year’s Eve. They look down impassively and size up the prospective customers.

I am concerned for the ushers in the Dáil. They sit all day, with their backs to a set of double doors, listening to our legislators teasing out the finer points of law and framing new ones to make our lives even better than they were last year or even thirty years ago. They listen to the flow of lofty rhetoric that characterises the daily exchanges in our parliament. Cicero himself, would sit entranced in such company. Edmund Burke would be stricken silent by such mellifluous oratory, but for the poor ushers at the door, it must be a pain in the neck.

I am alarmed by the cabinet papers of three decades ago, which are released around the turn of the year. The assumption is that passions will have died down over the years. The ministers and public figures shown in the photographs will have shuffled, or will have been ushered, off the stage. Old animosities will have been forgotten and all will unite in a spirit of good will and optimism for the future.  What alarms me is the fact that they are all so familiar. I didn’t realise that that was THE PAST. Some of these people are still around in public life. Some are still performing well and some are fossilised and petrified by the passage of time. Hair styles have changed since those wise heads nodded over the affairs of state. At New Year celebrations,  you may see pictures of yourself from such occasions thirty or even forty years ago. You may not even recognise yourself, or you may see evidence of an incipient bald patch. Nothing to worry about there. Everything is getting better, not like the bad old days. I don’t need or want, reminders that I am thirty years older, or that my flowing locks have gone with the wind. Even less do I want journalists and commentators raking over the coals of  old rancour. Good Janus! This is Ireland, for God’s sake. I wish a happy and peaceful 2014 to Richard Haass and fair play to him for trying. THE PAST hasn’t gone away, you know, Richard, but thank you anyway.

Around the time that the Pope came to Ireland, my little daughters learned a new hymn. Bind us together Lord…. There were lots of new hymns, with lots of guitars and hand-clapping. They argued about the words. One of them sang:

 Bang us together, Lord. Bang us together… 

‘Don’t be stupid’,  insisted the other. ‘It’s’…

Bang doors together, Lord.

Bang doors together,

With love that cannot be bro-wo-ken.

Now that made more sense. There are ways of banging doors. There are ‘tones of voice’ to the shutting of doors. ‘No need to slam the door.’ ‘I didn’t slam the door. It was the east wind, emanating from the ‘cold pole’ of Asia that slammed it, the wind that blows across the frozen tundra, freezing the Kulaks on the blasted Steppes and whipping through our house in January, that slammed it. ‘ ‘Well anyway, don’t slam it again.’  ‘Good Janus! I told you I didn’t slam it. Is it my fault that the vast Eurasian landmass, loses heat in winter and exhales cold air over half the globe, for Janus’s sake?’   ‘Just try to be more careful in future.’

My friend converted his attic into an office, where he worked in peace and quiet. He stuck a notice on the lock on his front door. I noticed it: Please close this door QUIETLY. I made one like it. It must have been against the spirit of the hymn. It made no difference. People remarked on my penmanship and my optimism, but the sellotape shrivelled in the draught from the keyhole. The little notice blew away in the wind that shakes the Poles and the poles,  freezes the Lithuanians and Geordies and stirs up the Irish Sea.

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Until I discovered the beauty of PVC, I relied heavily on the power of the press at this time of year. Strips of Irish Times, inserted into warped window frames, did wonders to frustrate the gods of the wind, especially Boreas, a right pain in the neck. (No disrespect to gods in general, of course. Zephyrus is welcome in our house at any time, provided he doesn’t slam the door.) It is no coincidence that long balbriggans were invented in Balbriggan, four miles further north along the east coast, than Skerries. I associate balbriggans, (terminal underwear for keeping your end warm) with the glamour of Hollywood, especially when worn by (wanderin’) stars like Lee Marvin.

I had an up-and-over garage door, operated by a complex system of springs and pulleys. It yawed in the wind and sometimes came off the rails. Unhinged we might say, if it had had hinges. But who doesn’t become a bit unhinged in the time of east wind?  There was a law in certain eastern countries that excused murder of one’s wife at the time of the east wind. A bit extreme.  I set to fixing it. I removed the outer cover with a few skillful twists of a spanner. Suddenly, CRASH,WHANG, WALLOP, the garage was filled with uncoiled springs, flying plastic ‘bushes’ and rollers ricocheting from walls, roof and floor. It was like the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. It seems that the springs are at maximum tension when the door is down. Janus should have warned me. To refit the whole thing, I would have had to dismantle the whole shebang.  A stoa is a portico, in Greek. That’s where the Stoics used to sit. They would have taken the disaster with a shrug of resignation. ‘What can you do? Turn your collar up. Get on with the job.’  I’m no Stoic. I sold the door to a travelling man who happened to be passing with a horse and cart. I got fifteen quid for it.

I read an obituary for Kalashnikov, in the New Year newspapers. He has shuffled off this mortal coil, having armed armies, psychopaths and child soldiers all over the world. It seems that his assault rifle worked on a similar principle to my garage door, a simple spring-loaded device. He made 90,000,000 of them. No home need be without one.

My three-year-old grandson, a Jungle Book fan, said to me: ‘The animals live in harmony.’  ‘What does that mean?’ I asked him. ‘It means that they live in harmony.’

We should try it sometime.