Erebus and Terror. Death of the Banshee.


When embarking on polar exploration, it might be no harm to consult the omens. Would you name your vessels Confusion or Disaster? No you would not. That would be tempting Fate. What about Irrevocably Lost and Accident Prone? No. Think positive. The Greek myths explained natural phenomena through the medium of the tangled family relationships of vindictive and endlessly fornicating deities. I recall a protest from a correspondent in the Irish Times many years ago, at the American practice of naming the space rockets after mythological figures, Apollo, Saturn, Mercury. This was, according to the writer, demeaning to the concept of deity and all religion. He lost me there. What however, possessed Sir John Franklin to select ships named Erebus and Terror? Erebus, the child of Chaos, is the god of darkness, the epitome of blackness and oblivion. Terror needs no definition in our time. Almost two centuries later, some light has penetrated the story of this legendary disaster. The hag-like faces of  several of Franklin’s crewmen, with wild, staring eyes, have emerged from the permafrost, to tell a story of unimaginable suffering and horror.


During the storms of last week we fell to talking about survival and the fragility of the infrastructure on which our way of life depends. We had a thirty six hour electricity outage. The sea and sky were a uniform blue-black colour, relieved  only by the dim white of the breakers at the sea wall. We had no heat, light or cooking facilities. Mobile phones died. We had no access to Bear Grylls on television to show us how to source nutrients from grubs and rhizomes.  The situation looked desperate. We had to fall back on conversation, left-overs of turkey and ham and the dwindling stocks of wine, beer and Baileys. We avoided ghost stories. We survived. There were no mutinies or desertions. Occasional take-away meals kept body and soul together. We enjoyed the experience but a third day without power might have tried mens’ souls beyond endurance.

Christmas,sun room, ESB 024

Apparently 10 of those 38 KV went on the blink, excising parts of North County Dublin from the network. Huge credit is due to the ESB workers who worked tirelessly in dismal weather, to restore the supply. It is something we take for granted when it works. At the flick of a switch we command the awesome power of rivers, winds and billion year old fossil fuels, to do our bidding. It is no wonder that those who seek to disrupt our way of life, see the destruction of power sources as a quick and easy way to do so. We call them terrorists.

Christmas,sun room, ESB 025

A documentary about the origins of the ESB and its influence on our society,was called, The Death of the Banshee. It paid tribute to those who brought light to the darkness and dispelled our primitive fears. We are in their debt. The upshot of our meditation on survival was that after we had looted the supermarkets and petrol stations and eaten all the rhizomes from the garden pond, our way of life and civilization would be a push-over to any concerted attack. It’s a flimsy construction, needing constant maintenance or else we descend again into an age of darkness.

The terrorist, asserted Brendan Behan, is the fellow with the little bomb. He had a point.


One of Franklin’s ships on the cold seabed.

The Fighting Irish Novelists and other Tough Guys.

In the Simpsons television cartoon show they had Springfield’s Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. There was a float full of The Fighting Irish Novelists. They were a lively bunch, jumping down at regular intervals to trade blows and abuse. There was reason to suspect that there was drink taken. Some said that this was grossly offensive, showing the worst stereotypes of the Irish character. It was particularly disappointing to those of us who aspire to being Irish novelists, but are no bloody good at fighting. Why would the Simpsons ignore the undoubted literary genius of the Irish in order to concentrate on our bellicose reputation?

When Jack Dempsey was preparing to fight Gene Tunney for the first time, he sent a spy to Tunney’s training camp. Dempsey was a hard man. He learned his trade in saloons and mining camps, fighting all comers. He was often brought home in a wheelbarrow. Tunney trained by chopping down trees— and sparring partners.
The spy returned in high glee.
‘It’s in the bag, champ’, he announced. ‘The guy is readin’ a book.’
Tunney went on to defeat Dempsey twice, although there are still arguments about the famous Long Count. If you want to put down your pint and step outside, we can settle it, coats off, man to man. Tunney’s father was from Cill Aodáin in County Mayo. Cue Raftery, the blind poet, ‘full of hope and good will.’ Raftery enjoyed a drink too.
This might suggest that literary types are natural tough guys. Hemingway liked to box. He was a fairly nifty writer. Brendan Behan set the gold standard for bellicose Irish writers. There was reason to suspect that drink had been taken. Drink makes some people bellicose. That means ‘warlike’ although drink and ‘bellies’ can have a different connotation. Drink makes others want to sing or become friends with everyone. A few believe that it fuels literary genius. The fuel can burn out.

I published my first novel many years ago. I was quite pleased and full of good will. I was having a drink in a pub, with a beautiful view of the harbour. I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was quite a large hand.
‘You know,’ said the man, ‘you’re going about this writing business the wrong way.’
Ah, here we go, I thought. You’re wrong, you know. They didn’t have helicopters at the Battle of Waterloo.( Didn’t they?) There’s a spelling mistake on page 147. The red mist of rage began to cloud my vision.
‘How come?’ I asked, with a steely edge to my voice.
By coincidence at the time, I was the same weight as ‘Marvelous’ Marvin Hagler. Marvin’s weight was distributed differently from mine. He had trapezius muscles instead of a neck. He had an iron chin. He had biceps and triceps. I had a couple of pints.
‘You should be drinking and getting into fights in pubs,’ said my interlocutor. ‘That way you would get all the publicity you could ask for.’

There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. The bigger they come and all that nonsense. I thought of taking his advice and making a start there and then, by hurling him through the plate glass window and leaping after him to pound him with lefts and rights etc. in the way of Hollywood cowboys. I could have smashed a bar stool over his head. He who hesitates is lost. I began to weigh up the situation. The bigger they come, the closer they are to the ceiling.

I never like to cause a fuss. Plate glass is hideously expensive to replace. Those bar stools are quite heavy, you know. I hadn’t finished my drink. He is a foot taller than me. He played rugby for Ireland. Anyway I like the chap. His advice was kindly meant. I bought him a pint. I heard the doors of the Pantheon of Great Drunken Irish Novelists slamming shut. The noise still reverberates in my head.

I have won only a single decisive victory in a fight in my entire life. It was in fourth class in the National School. His name was Tom. His brother was one of the toughest lads in the school. His brother used more hair oil than the rest of the class put together. I bumped into Tom in the yard. He took serious offence. A fight was unavoidable. A crowd gathered around. I had read about John L. Sullivan and Gene Tunney in The Wizard. Scientific pugilism was called for. Tom was not a reading man. I shut my eyes and took a swing. I connected. I opened my eyes. One of the most beautiful things I have ever seen, was Tom’s astonished expression and the blood, snot and tears on his face. He retired in the first round. I was carried shoulder-high for a few seconds, until The Master appeared, swishing his cane, to investigate all the noise. It was a cane like Charlie Chaplin’s one. Not a bit funny. It was heady stuff, all the same. What a thing it would be, ‘to ride in triumph through Persepolis’. I have never been carried shoulder-high for any of my literary efforts.

I had a go at boxing in later years but I found that, not only have I a glass chin, I have a glass head. One punch gave me a blinding headache and visual disturbance. I concentrated on the writing. Marvin’s titles were safe. Not only did Gene Tunney read books, He wrote one as well. So it’s ok to write. Anyway, I always thought all that skipping was sissy stuff. Jack Dempsey went on the stage. He owned a restaurant. He complained that he was in more danger behind the bar, than he had ever been in the ring, from silly asses who wanted to boast that they had knocked out Jack Dempsey. He put it differently. Marvin went into movies. Rocky Graziano produced a great book.

King Levinsky, a Chicago fish seller, made a few dollars from the fight game. His manager, his sister, by the way, set up a bank account. The bank manager gave him a cheque book. The king wrote cheques. The manager called him in.
‘Your account is seriously overdrawn, Mr. Levinsky,’ says he.
‘What are ya talkin’ about?’ says the king. ‘ The book aint even half finished.’ Prize fighters and books, eh.
I wrote some of my best fiction for bank managers.

Is The Simpsons a work of fiction? Are there any real drunken Irish fighting novelists at all at all? The present lot look a bit too refeened. They occupy a higher plane. They are treated with deference. No need for them to take the coats off and have a good brawl. They duel with rapier wit and occasionally, pens dipped in acid. Can we believe anything we see on the screen? Special FX? Very bad spelling too.

John Wayne’s real name was Marion. Steven Seagal deals out punishment to bad guys, with the efficiency of a gents’ haberdasher tidying his shelves. ‘Suit you, Sir.’ Clint almost always relies on a gun. How come all the bad guys are such lousy shots? Bruce Willis causes major havoc and damage to property. He litters cities with dead villains. (Caution: never go up in a cinematic helicopter.) It’s all illusion. Read the credits: Fights arranged by… Fights choreographed… for crying out loud. Or is that Bruce Forsyth? Nobody seems to mind a flesh wound. Shaking your head to clear your vision is not wise. The hero is always bandaged up and comforted by the heroine or the kid who had been kidnapped. Ah, wuzzums! There is always a joke at the end. You would need a stiff drink, after all the explosions and car crashes.

Some silly ass shouted abuse at my fellow watercolourist, Eric Cantona. Eric took a flyin’ lep at the eejit and levelled him. I contemplated forming a Franco-Irish Fighting Watercolourists association. We could kick some ass, like the gentleman in the preceding paragraph. Then I saw him in a film. He was poncing around in tights at the court of Queen Elizabeth. He was pretending to be the French ambassador. Would you pick Eric for the Diplomatic Corps?

There is one great cinematic fight. It is the best worst fight of all. It is between Colin Firth and Hugh Grant. They were fighting over Bridget Jones. (Not a bloke’s film, but anyway..) They were spectacularly inept. Useless. They were utterly convincing.

If I wuz ten years younger, with a pint in me, I could fight either one o’ them. I’d… I’d…. Five years and a couple o’ pints, bejayziz….one hand tied behind me back…I’d take the both o’them together…What year is it anyway? …

Here, hould me coat.