Brexit, Strawberries, July and Enterprise.

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At one time The Golf Path, a narrow cinder track along by the railway, was an adventure trail. Nowadays you have to brave nettles, thistles, briars, waist-high weeds, David Attenborough and sundry gorillas, to get to the other end. Before the high, metal fence was installed, all that separated you from the track were several strands of bull-wire threaded through fence posts made from upright sleepers. There was a good chance of being in close proximity to a train, a demure diesel rail-car humming along or a steam engine huffing and puffing up the slight gradient, in a cloud of smoke and smuts. It was always obligatory to wave to the driver, just as he was obliged by his terms of employment, to wave back. When The Enterprise express went through from faraway Belfast, with pistons hammering , it was time to grip the wires or uprights for fear of being whisked into the vacuum behind the roaring monster. The Enterprise blasted children into delicious, shuddering terror. The whistle screeched. White smoke streamed behind, as windows, with anonymous white faces looking out, flashed past. As suddenly as it came, it was gone. It is no wonder that Captain Kirk, when he decided to boldly go where the hand of man has never set foot, called his star ship after the Belfast express.

King James, when he fled ignominiously from the battlefield of the Boyne, would have been glad of a seat on The Enterprise, a nourishing dinner in the dining car and a few pints in the bar. Alas for him, The Enterprise didn’t stop at Drogheda for another two centuries. He had to be content with a fast horse, an overnight in Hacketstown House, no time for a round of golf, early breakfast, headlong flight southwards and ‘o’er the watter’ to France. He never came back to claim his three kingdoms. Britain opted for a commercial union with Holland and the rest, as the saying goes, is history. Business is business.

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When we picked spuds on Hacketstown land, we could peer into the walled garden where the strawberries grew. These were hand-reared strawberries, tended lovingly by the farmer himself. It was a shrewd business decision not to let hungry schoolboys into the rarified micro climate of the walled garden. The farmer picked and packed the berries at regular intervals and took them to the fruit and veg market in Dublin. There was benefit in this for us also in that we could lie around in the drills and maybe share a Woodbine or have a spud fight, until we heard the sound of his car coming back down the track to the field. On the way home we could forage for strawberries that had been ‘liberated’ onto the railway embankment along the Golf Path, old plants and runners that had been cast out from the farmer’s loving care. This required a degree of bravado and a reasonable knowledge of the railway timetable. The strawberries were green and miserable but still a bonus.

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One day in the early seventies, the farmer was unable to get his crop to market. The narrow street was blocked by an enormous lorry with a cargo of fresas from Spain. Roll On Roll Off ferries had arrived in Irish ports. He turned his car around and came, disconsolately, home. ‘Take those strawberries down the town’, he said to his foreman, ‘and give them away to anyone that wants them.’  We were heading, pell mell into the Common Market.

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For several years I was intrigued by a bright blue ship that passed by every week from Drogheda and back again to Drogheda. I made enquiries. It belonged to Tyrrels of Arklow. It was bringing cement to the builders of The Channel Tunnel, a scheme to provide closer links between Great Britain and the Continent. No longer would The Continent be at risk of isolation by fog in The Channel. Good business for everyone. The other notable change is the growth in container ship traffic. They pass like floating castles, usually hull-down beyond the horizon with the sunlight catching the superstructure and the soaring piles of Lego blocks on  deck.

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Up to a week ago business seemed to be on the up and up. Confidence was growing. While the strawberry and cream farmers, the tennis players, the ticket tout/entrepreneurs and fans were limbering up for Wimbledon; while the British were commemorating the young men sacrificed in a war ostensibly to protect Europe, the Brexiteers shot themselves with unerring aim, in the foot. The collateral damage  leaves everyone else in Europe and beyond, among the walking wounded.

The older generations who grew up with the aftermath of wars that dismembered and impoverished Europe, chose to turn away from the project of greater unity and greater opportunity. The young can go fend for themselves. Great Britain is now Britain, a tenuous association of conflicting interests. The Scots should go out and beat the bushes for some long lost Stuart to fly over the sea to Skye, in his bonny boat and rescue them. Even Boris, about a year ago, was suggesting that London should declare independence from Britain. You do remember Boris, don’t you? Can even the Welsh live in harmony after Brexit?  Does Dave remind you of the skipper of the good ship Exxon Valdez?

I blame that scoundrel, Louis Bleriot, for all this nonsense about closer links with damned foreigners.

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Hay machines. The Battle of the Boyne and Wee Hughie.

Irish memories are notoriously long. Perhaps I should say Celtic memories. Do you remember Canon Sydney MacEwan, the noted tenor and his plaintive ode? ‘Och! he’s gone to school, Wee Hughie…’ Ah cannae write the accent but I felt for the little beggar, every September, for many years. I shared Wee Hughie’s fear and trepidation….’Wi’ Joe’s owld coat upon him, Och! the poor wee man’. Life can be daunting enough for little people. Don’t make it worse.

But sometimes the sun shines and there are long summer days, days when Bob and Ronnie Duff cut the hay. They would occasionally send us ahead of the horses to watch out for corncrakes’ nests. They would leave a little island of hay for the bird or neglect a bit of the headland. They would get a grant from Brussels nowadays, for this small act of courtesy to their raucous neighbours The mowing machine whirred and gathered the hay. The blades moved back and forth, just like the barber’s clipper–but bigger, of course. The swathes lay on the bright green shoots of aftergrass. It dried and was forked into cocks. The cocks were cranked onto the flat hay-bogie. The biggest thrill was to ride on the back of the bogie. The boards were polished by the sliding haycocks. Your feet dangled on the road. There were tar bubbles on the road–for attention later. Butter will remove the tar off sticky hands, but not, alas, off clothes. Anyway it was rationed. That was in the years after the war.
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This is where the famous battle took place. William’s army forced the passage of the river at Oldbridge, after hours of cannonading and slaughter. Meanwhile his cavalry went upstream and crossed at Slane to out-flank King James’s troops, despite the best efforts of gallant Patrick Sarsfield. King William’s troops advanced, to drum and fife: ‘An lile ba léir í; ba linn an lá…’ the song that whistled a king out of three kingdoms.

What was that all about? What brought this obscenity into the summer meadows of Meath and the quiet reaches of the Boyne? Why did the Pope, Old Red-Socks, The Scarlet Whore of Babylon, (You’ve heard the rhetoric,) put his money on Protestant William? What wry cynicism prompted the French king to inflict his Dutch war on the misfortunate people of Ireland? Was it just part of the great game?

Dan Snow has explained it all, with holograms marching out of his briefcase and computer graphics designed to make us all strategists. Get men to the bridge! Dig in here! Group your artillery there! But holograms do not cry out. Their limbs are not shorn off by cannon balls. They do not lie in swathes on summer grass, with their brains dashed out by musket balls and their life blood seeping into the river shallows. ‘Fusilade’ Can’t you hear the whistle and the smack of lead in the word itself.

King James heard it, on the heights of Donore. He heard the fifes and drums. The jig was up. He legged it from the battlefield, having instructed the Irish to hold out for as long as possible. Shrewd strategy. Tradition has it that he spent the night at Hacketstown House, near Skerries and then made good time to Duncannon in Wexford to set sail for France. He never came back, despite the legions of Irish poets who lamented the fall of the Stuarts. The Scots lament his grandson, the Bonny Prince, who left his own men standing for hours under cannon fire at Culloden. He came to a sorry and drink-sodden end as a pensioner of the French king. What a shower!

I learned another song when I was in school: ‘An bfhaca tú mo Sheamaisín?’ ‘ Did you see my little Seamus?’ Like Wee Hughie, he was going down the road, I assumed to school. He had a little yellow book in his pocket. He had neither hat nor coat. He went barefoot. I felt sorry for him also, until I learned that this was no little urchin condemned to school. This was little James, in full flight from the battle. At least one Irish poet didn’t buy the Stuart line.

Niall Ferguson argues that the Great Revolution was merely a strategic merger between two commercial empires, the Dutch and the British. It was accomplished without bloodshed in Britain, if you don’t count the poor divils at Derry, Aughrim, Enniskillen and the Boyne, (That’s another song,) plus Athlone and Limerick and the general dismembering of Ireland. It left a long and rancid memory.

Incidentally,Shéamaisín is pronounced phonetically Hay machine. It’s strange what comes to mind when you drive along the Boyne.