Music Hath Charms. Church Street.

I remember, I remember, the house where I was born…

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Well, to be truthful, I don’t. I left it when I was about eighteen months old. All I know about our family’s time in Church Street is hearsay and conjecture. I feel that I should have some notion of the house but I have nothing except fragments of anecdotes, told by older siblings in that patronising way…’but you wouldn’t remember that. Ha! you were too young.’ Now the house with its familiar street-scape, is passing into history.

Everything is in a state of flux. They speak about future-shock, the shock we experience when familiar sights and practices are supplanted by new things. That which obtained in our childhood is normal. Everything after that stage is interesting, exciting, a change for the better, unsettling, sad, perturbing, crazy, a disgrace , even an outrage. Select the category that suits your mood at the time. The young will think it’s ‘deadly’. Older people will grow to accept innovation, may even say…’about bloody well time..’ We move on…but inevitably, we look back.

My parents rented that house from Mrs. Behan, a good neighbour, in the red house next door, a handy woman to have around. She helped Dr. Heffernan to bring me into the world, into the light as the Spanish say. I understand that it had indoor plumbing, a big consideration in the cold nineteen forties. It had a long garden leading down to Tennis Court Lane, where many adventures took place…’you couldn’t remember that…  Yeah, yeah. ‘The Pony Daly riding his horse into Kitty Kingston’s shop…but you couldn’t…..’  I know. I know. A neighbour’s child had a devastating answer to that:  ‘Yes I can. I was still up in Heaven and I could see everything.’  His sister replied archly:  ‘That’s a big lie. You were in Mammy’s tummy and you couldn’t see a thing.’  When you come into the light, you have a lot of catching up to do.

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My father died thirty six years ago today, more than half of my lifetime ago, yet he remains as vivid as when I was a child. I went to Mass to remember him. I went in by the lane on the South side, because he had taken a scunner against a woman who was in the habit of antagonising Mass-goers passing her house on the other side. Apparently she was good at it. We always went in on the South side. I don’t even know her name but am prepared to take it on trust that she was an old hairpin, a battleaxe, a right shrew, a bit of an old bags.’ (Hearsay, M’lud). The choir sang ‘Morning has broken, like the first morning. Blackbird has spoken…etc.’ I like to think that there were blackbirds in the garden I never knew, when I came into the light.  It was June. They have returned in force to our current garden. Anois teacht an Earraigh… There was a war on. Everything was scarce. There were no lights at night.

My father bought a new hat. It probably cost him a lot of ration coupons. I don’t suppose you remember coupons. I rarely saw him out of doors without his hat, except, one time when he came to call us in from a game of football in Duffs’ field. He went up for a high ball, whipping off his hat and executing a perfect header. We laughed and cheered to think that one so old could be so nonchalant. I took a go on a trampoline in my daughter’s garden. I wasn’t Olympic standard but I wasn’t a disgrace. My grandchildren laughed. One little fellow remarked: ‘He’s just trying to prove that old people aren’t rubbish at doing stuff.’ I did stuff when he was still up in Heaven or in his Mammy’s tummy and couldn’t see a thing..couldn’t possibly remember me doing stuff… Anyway my father’s new hat blew off. He chased it down Church Street, across The Square and on towards Quay Street. I don’t need anyone to tell me that his language was colourful. The hat blew through a gap onto the North Strand. By the dim light of a gibbous moon (writers love gibbous moons) he saw it sailing out to sea, with a fair following wind. When a sharp wind blows down Church Street I doubt if even Jesse Owens could catch it. But it’s an ill wind, as they say and a long road that has no turning. He probably dropped into Glennons to assuage his disappointment, wet his whistle and curse his bad luck.

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New Street, once known as Barter Street, runs at right angles to Church Street. Few of the houses had indoor plumbing. A lad who lived in one of the cottages, used to sing, whenever he was in the W.C. in the garden. He sang not for joy, but because there was no catch on the door. Like the blackbird singing to defend his territory he sang to ward off intruders…Are you going to be in there all day?…  ‘Oh Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling….’ A cry from the heart for indoor plumbing. He had a very good voice…or so I have been told. I couldn’t possibly remember him.  They’ve made a right haimes of the house where I was born and Mrs. Behan’s house and Tommy Dunne’s clay-built cottage, although I couldn’t possibly remember him.

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The priest blessed candles and spoke about light. The choir sang and I listened for his familiar cough. I came out into a biting wind and looked down Church Street, half expecting to see him striding along, whistling, flicking his right foot out slightly, the legacy of an old wound, or perhaps raising his hat to a passing lady, (not the old Biddy on the North side). He even raised his hat to his daughters when he met them in the street. I didn’t see him. Maybe he had nipped into Glennons to have a word with Frank. I hope so.

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When the low sun shines after rain, Church Street is paved with gold. It is. It is. I’ve seen it.  ‘You couldn’t possibly have seen that. It’s silver.’

Silver will do.

Triumphal Arches, Haircuts and Birdsong.

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An Eskimo dad sat in an igloo, reading nursery rhymes to his little son. Little Jack Horner/sat in a corner/ eating his pudding and pie. He put in his thumb/ and pulled out a plum/ and said what a good boy am I!  It’s a good rhyme. To which the puzzled little boy replied: Hey, dad, what’s a corner?

The Greeks built magnificent temples but there were so many pillars holding up the roof,  there was not much room inside.  So they transacted their business outside. They sat in doorways and porches, out of the glare of the sun. They knew about corners and all the other great questions of life. I have no doubt that on many occasions, the friends of Socrates hid around corners when they saw him approaching, with all his questions. Socrates had no small talk, an essential qualification for corner-boys. The image left to us of Greek architecture is rows of beautifully proportioned pillars on dusty hillsides, where the gods once sat and laughed at mankind.  Sometimes the pillars and columns lie in their component parts, shattered and scattered by earthquakes or the relentless force of gravity. Tennyson’s Ulysses says: Yet all experience is an arch, wherethrough gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades forever and forever, when we move. To which his companions may well have asked, ‘What the hell is an arch?

The Romans take the credit for discovering The Arch. The principal is that of two drunks staggering home from the alehouse. They are locked together in mutual amity and esteem, at the shoulders. The weight is thrust downwards and sideways. The footing may not be too secure. Take one away and the other inevitably falls down.  The arch is a balance of all these factors. It enabled the Romans to span valleys with aqueducts and viaducts and send armies to dominate the known world.Through this arch, in the Colosseum, you can see some of the remains of Nero’s house. After the expenditure of staggering amounts of treasure and the lives of countless slaves, he was able to say that at last he could live as befitted a human being, in a decent house. The dome is simply a development of the arch.  Framed in the arch you can see tourists, who have come to gawk at the place where the Romans enjoyed recreational slaughter and execution. Rome 2012 021

What tributaries follow him to  to Rome, to grace in captive bonds, his chariot wheels?  Caesar drew bigger crowds than this. They came to cheer and to marvel at the plunder. The victors processed through triumphal arches, along the Sacred Way. The prisoners were sold into slavery or set to die in the arena on festive days. Admission free. This is the arch of Constantine, not the worst of the emperors. He went for three arches together. He used spolia, salvage, bits of older arches and sculptures, a man after  me own heart. You must put a road through it and then walk under it, pointless but no doubt symbolic of something, perhaps birth or rebirth. Everyone likes an arch. We got one by accident.


It began as a bird house on a pole, not Doric or Corinthian, just a wooden pole from John Kingston’s hardware. I’m sure if we had requested an Ionic column, he would have had a couple out in the yard, but we are humble folk, unlike the Caesars. We have never conquered anyone and put them to the sword. We planted a clematis to take the bare look off the pole. The clematis throve and spread. It became necessary to get an arch to support the sudden growth. You can see how conquests can grow into empires, bringing further responsibilities. The arch was a spindly metal thing but it served for a few years.

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We had to put a road through it. The clematis was in sore need of a haircut. (Ronald Reagan’s hilarious Irish joke: What Irishman stands outside your back door all winter?  Paddy O’ Furniture. Boom, boom!) The arch turned deciduous. We tried spolia , a bit of wavin pipe, a strut from a lobster pot, cable ties. I couldn’t reach the top to give it a good cut. In the triumphal arch building trade, it is necessary to have a good head for heights. A philadelphus shrub grew up to take the weight on one side. The arch existed only in theory. The philadelphus, groaning under the weight, refused to flower. A plan was required. We went to Woodies to buy a barbecue and came home with a sturdy, build it yourself, wooden arch. Construction time 30 mins. The diagram showed two stylised  human figures. Their heads, appropriately, were not attached to their shoulders. The plan: construct the arch (30mins) and slip it under the clematis (5 mins).

However, after an hour or so constructing the arch, it became necessary to shorten it, dig some trenches and remove the supporting spolia. The mass of clematis began slowly to sag towards the ground.We became aware of a blackbird sitting on her nest in the depths of the vegetation. She was no more than two feet from the ground. She fled with loud protests to a nearby fence. We couldn’t leave the nest—and the eggs within reach of cats. We set about lifting the entire mass and inserting the arch with the minimum of disturbance (3hours).  A sturdy spouse, as indicated on the diagram, is essential, in the absence of slaves. We secured it and waited in some apprehension. She came suddenly, back to her nest. We waited some more. She didn’t forsake it. She is still there, in the thicket, sitting patiently.

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She came out this morning for her breakfast. Now, that was a triumph worthy of an arch. The haircut will have to wait.