Short Shrift. Compression is good for the soul. Midwinter Day

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Father Sherwin prepared us for First Confession and Holy Communion. ‘Stick out your tongues,’ he said, ‘and let me see if you have any sins on them. No, everybody seems to be all right.’ We put them back in. It became a game. A bad sin, a mortaler, appeared as a black spot on the tongue. We vied with one another. We used pencil, because we had not yet advanced to ink and dipper pens. We had no biros in those times. Anyway, as I discovered, biros taste horrible. (High-altitude writing-sticks, they were called originally, replacing fountain pens, which tended to burst in aeroplanes. A burst fountain pen is no joke at the best of times, but potentially disastrous, when engaging the Luftwaffe. Well done, Lazlo Biro.)   Haughtons Blue-black ink  is not a great vintage either, but safe enough with a Waverley nib, at ground level.

At seven years of age you have to work hard at finding some decent sins. It transpired that we were all recidivists. We had to keep going back. ‘Ye know not the hour nor the day.’  The sins weren’t anything to write home about. In fact, home would be the last place to write to. The retribution would come more swiftly. No need to wait for the General Judgement and The Last Trump. ‘He that contemneth in small things, shall fall by little and little.’  ‘Contemneth’?  There were two brothers called Little, in the school, Gerry and Kevin, decent lads. I couldn’t understand why the catechism picked on them. I resolved, (it’s an essential part of the process,) to give up contemning. There was a big investigation once, into the burning down of a shed behind the railway station. The culprit was discovered and made to admit his guilt. The Guards were involved. This was serious.  ‘Why did you do it?’ they asked. ‘The Devil tempted me,’ he replied. What do you expect? Isn’t that what they taught us? Case dismissed.

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This is the drill. You go into the confession box. It’s dark in there. You get down on your benders. You wait until the priest is finished with the sinner on the other side. You hear the murmuring. It’s a sin to listen to the other sinner’s confession, although it would be interesting. Maybe he would have the same sins as you have. You cough to muffle the sound. You sway gently back and forth, listening to the sound of your knees. Groan, creak.  Maybe it was only the floorboards. You could play a little tune on your knees. Baa,baa, black sheep is a good one to start with.  ‘‘Rattle’. The shutter slides back. You say the prayer and tell your sins, maybe holding one or two back for next week. You get your penance and absolution and you’re out. Made it!

Mrs Corcoran warned us to go down to the back of the church to say the penance. ‘Don’t go into the seat immediately outside the box.’ I reasoned that there was some sort of a beam that came straight out from the confession box. It would cancel out your penance. (Thinking outside the box? I get it now.) You would be damned, without even knowing why. I realised, years later, that it had more to do with traffic management than theology.

There was one boy who was terrified of First Confession. He knew that it was dark inside. That wasn’t the problem. He saw people going into the box and closing the door. It closes almost flush with the wall. He reasoned that there was some sort of force that flattened the sinner, in order to make him or her, fit into the space. It must be painful.  He watched and waited. They emerged after a few minutes, miraculously restored to normal girth. Like many things to do with religion, it’s a mystery. No, it isn’t. There is a sinner-sized adjunct to the main building, outside each confession box. There is a little window, to allow a kindly beam of light to penetrate the darkness. Nothing to worry about, at all, except for the beam that undoes all your good work.

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Confession for the First Friday of every month, was mandatory. We went at twelve o’clock, a stampeding horde of sinners, anxious to be the first to unburden themselves, charging down New Street and Church Street, in a mad rush to get it over with and enjoy the longer lunch break to the full.  There was one teacher, however, who did a softening up process first. He described the sufferings of Christ in graphic and gory detail, until you felt faint, imagining the agony and secure in the knowledge that it was all your fault. I remembered him when I saw Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ.  Did nobody ever tell tell these people that less is more?

We thundered down New Street, knocking music out of the manhole covers with our rubber boots and hobnailers.  Tonge (Flange?) and Taggart, Hammond Lane Foundries, Cavanaghs of Birr, (the coldest place in Ireland) and of course, James Duff and Sons, Skerries. Each manhole had its own note. Some of them still have. There is one in Convent Lane, that has gone plownkkk  for almost a century. They still do a great job, carrying away our nameless abominations to a dark and noisome place. We read The Vision of Mirzah in school. Mirzah saw a bridge with one hundred arches. A great multitude made its way across the bridge. The furthest arches were in ruins. The roadway was decayed and crumbling over these arches. At random points there were trapdoors that opened without warning, hurling the unwary to their doom below. There were demons clutching at the travellers and throwing them over the parapet of the bridge. It’s an allegory of life. ‘Ye know not the hour etc….’  Thanks a lot, Mirzah. That’s all I need at my stage in life. The manholes stood up to our onslaught. The demons were driven away.

‘And these impure thoughts. Did you entertain them?’ ‘Ah, no, Father, but they sure entertained me.’  I didn’t hear that either.

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People will go to Newgrange today, Midwinter Day, hoping to see that kindly beam of light. I don’t fancy their chances. I took these photographs yesterday. After that we ‘tackled’ the utility room, while Paul finished painting the kitchen. He did a great job, covering up forty years’ sins against decor. I made a firm purpose of amendment. Never again will I offend with a can of paint. I asked him to help me remove a dead clothes dryer. ‘No problem,’ he said, picking it up and carrying it away. This revealed a patch of yellow wall that had escaped my attempts with Icelandic Blue, many years ago. In a dim light it looks like a beam of sunshine. I am reluctant to cover it over.

A long time ago I was in the company of a number of politicians. They were enthusing about the introduction of wheelie bins. They were people who held the fate of millions in their hands, arbiters of life and death, and there they were, talking about how to compress your rubbish. I ask you. Well maybe not millions, but a sizeable number of the good people of Fingal. They were  right.  The wheelie bin changed my life for the better. No more cardboard boxes coming apart in the wet. No more plastic bins melting out of shape from hot ashes. No more bandy-legged walks with overloaded and rusty,  metal bins, trailing garbage all along the garden path. The wheelie bin has set me free.

Yesterday I compressed the contents of cupboards and drawers. I dumped old paint tins, half full of fossilised paint; glue tubes with no lids; five thousand curtain hooks; several metres of the wrong strimmer cord, that had escaped from the package, cards from forgotten acquaintances, wishing us a prosperous new millennium; mummified carrots and a sprung mouse-trap with some late Palaeozoic cheese still in it. I applied my ten year rule: if I haven’t seen it for ten years, I don’t want it. There was other stuff that all went into the bin. I was cleansed, nay, cleans-ed. We now have loads of room for stuff that will come in handy at some time in the future, but we must fight against that temptation.

I did hear part of a confession: ‘ I went upstairs, Father. It was down in in Birr. She had only a class of an oul’ chemise on her…’ My old knee trouble kicked in at that point. I didn’t get the end of the story. ‘Baa, baa, black sheep, have you any sins?  Maybe Birr isn’t the coldest place in Ireland after all.

Hey! The sun has come out, after all. Newgrange is looking good.

 

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Home Deliveries, the greatest thing since sliced bread.

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WINE

Yesterday a courier delivered a grape-vine to us. A book arrived from America and a bike from Holland. I could order my groceries on the internet and have them brought to my door. It all seems too easy, almost decadent, like lying in a shady bower, surrounded by pendant grapes, while others toil in the heat of the day.  By this time next year I shall be giving my feet an extra wash and treading my own grapes. Chateau la Feet. A word of warning to wine drinkers  everywhere: do not drink any French wine of 1968 vintage. That was the year of the student riots and anarchy in the streets.  The students complained, among other things,that their curriculum did not contain enough technical and practical subjects. It was all airy-fairy literature and philosophy. Twenty  years later they were on the streets again, demanding more liberal arts and airy-fairy stuff. To the barricades, mon brave! The wine-treaders staged a sit-down strike in solidarity.

Mike Boylan, once upon a time, delivered milk to our house.  The milk came from a herd of cattle that lived in a field of long wet grass, somewhere up near the Shady Lane.  I knew the Shady Lane as a place where conkers grew. I had seen the cattle and I believe I saw Mike’s van in the field.  So it all made sense. He delivered milk that had never felt the hand of Louis Pasteur. The cream rose to the top. There might be little weevils rowing across the surface on a good day. They looked like currachs, to my infant eyes. They lived in mushrooms, like the fairies.  I think I remember it, but of course my older siblings may well have told me these things and then scoffed when I claimed to have seen them.

Whatever way the cat jumped, and he did, Mike’s arrival at our house, created some excitement. He poured the milk into a big jug and added the traditional tilly for the cat. He gave his weather prognostications and the news of the day. However his departure was even more of an occasion, because we could scut behind the van and climb onto the back bumper, until he had travelled to the next house a few yards away. He did not approve. He spoke sternly to us and reported us to  our parents. None of this had any effect until he warned us that The Devil would be in the van from that day on. He was. I can still see the dark figure with burning eyes, seated between the milk cans. My blood curdled on the spot. I never risked scutting again. In later life I surmised that Mike’s son, Joe, later known as Tanganyika Joe, had played the part. Anyway, there was a bit of ‘body’ to the milk and when it curdled, it was honest to God sour milk that made excellent homemade bread. Mike was succeeded by Mr. Shiels, who arrived in a chariot, to the clip-clop of hooves. He also was a meteorologist and similarly, gave the tilly for the succession of cats that condescended to live with us.  Ben Hur was only trotting after him. In later life, Joe confided to me that  the only way to learn Swahili was to sleep with a dictionary, nudge, nudge, not that he had of course etc. etc. I was still struggling with Irish and had dictionaries and grammars go leor. 

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BREAD

Another Mr. Shiels, no relation, delivered bread from Rourkes’ Bakery in Dublin. He came in a lorry powered by two big gas tanks, one on each side of the bonnet. There was a chimney sticking up over the cab.  There was no petrol to be had at the time. The economics of it made no sense- bread coming all the way from Dublin, when there was a bakery only half a mile away.  The lorry appeared to be made of cardboard. It worked like a magician’s cabinet. He pushed empty trays in with a big pole and pulled them out full. He had trays of buns! His son Seán, worked with him. Seán was a debonair, good-looking fellow with his cap pushed to the back of his head. The Rank  Organisation took over Rourkes’ Bakery and Mr Shiels came no more. I was convinced that Seán had gone into films. That chap who played James Bond, looked rather like him.  He even wore a cap like Seán’s in Finian’s Rainbow or Darby O Gill.

Nurse Murphy, the midwife operated a kind of speakeasy arrangement  at the side of the family house.  Prospective customers went in by  the side door and tapped on the window. She set off immediately, with her bag of tricks. She and Dr. Heffernan, delivered me, I think, although I can’t remember the occasion too well. I was told that my mother remarked on what a terrible world it was to bring a baby into.  (Unusual for her to finish a sentence with a preposition, though I suppose she was under a bit of stress, at the time. She slept with a stickler for good grammar.) I’m glad she did it all the same, not the preposition, me .

Nurse Murphy and Nurse Clarke, came a few more times, presumably with new babies in their bags. I remember only the arrival of my youngest brother, at the beginning of the memorably bad winter of ’47.  Or was that  46-47? They didn’t have any good winters in the Forties. I was aware of a lot of to-ing and fro-ing upstairs and people going up and down with water for boiling the baby. Eventually we were allowed into the bedroom to meet our new sibling. He struck me as a beautiful little fellow with a sun tan and an astonishing shock of black hair. I can still see him and my mother’s smile of relief. Jambo, Bwana.

He still has a great head of hair. I think it was because he was born at altitude, on the Dublin Road, while I was delivered into the world at sea level and further north, in Church Street. Or maybe it was because oranges had become available again. For a time I attributed my lack of follicles to intense brain activity wearing away the roots from within. However this theory does not stand up in my youngest brother’s case.  I enjoyed taking him out in his pram. There were no buggies in those days. Babies and groceries vied for space.  He would sit up in his harness and shout ‘Baster! Baster!’ This was not a term of abuse or Italian for enough. He wanted more speed. I found a big plant on the foreshore of the North Strand. I thought I would bring it home to my mother. It was called elephant ears. I tucked it in behind the baby and delivered both of them home safely. I also delivered several hundred wood-lice, earwigs and centipedes, wrenched suddenly from their beachfront dwelling. So sudden was it, that the centipedes hadn’t had time to put on all their shoes.  (Centipedes– no time—shoes ? Oh, never mind.) As an early experiment in gardening, it was not a complete success. I met a man yesterday who was tipped out of his pram as a baby, when his sister lost control on Toker Hill. She didn’t notice, when retrieving the pram in  panic, that the baby wasn’t in it.  The bread-man found him in the ditch and delivered him safely home. He seems none the worse for the experience seventy years on.

I suppose the pram sheets and covers had to go to the laundry. There were several calling to Skerries, notably White Swan, Bell, Swastika, White Heather. Only now is their dirty linen being washed in public. We lost a good damask table cloth to the Swastika Laundry.  It was clearly marked in illegible  laundry ink.  Some of our family visited The Eagle’s Nest in Berchtesgaden a few years ago. They were fascinated in a grisly sort of way. I should have asked them to check out the napery.

There were coal men with horses and carts and butchers’ boys and other messenger-boys on bikes. Everything else had to be carried on top of the baby. One young lad delivered a packet of liver to a neighbour. The neighbour wasn’t at home. He used his intelligence. He unwrapped the liver and slid the paper under the door, until it was directly beneath the letterbox. He then posted the liver through the letterbox and went whistling on his way. Was there a cat? I don’t know. Did the neighbour find an arc of liver paté smeared on the hall floor? I don’t know, but she still chuckles about it on occasions.

Sam Shiels drove a bread van for the Mill Bakery. It was a proper, horse-drawn van. He sat on a high seat, like George ‘Gabby’ Hayes on the Deadwood stage. Sam was a notable shooting man. He could have been his own shotgun guard if it had been necessary.  It strikes me  only now, that the Shiels family had cornered all the vital commodities.The Mill made real bread, none of that trendy artisan stuff with seeds and nuts and pebbles to snap the few remaining teeth. WILLIAM ENNIS. MILL BAKERY.  MACHINE MADE BREAD. We went there for bran for the hens and pollard. ( Pollard? Nope, me neither.) If you had to fetch a loaf of bread, there was a fair chance that the soft inside would be excavated by the time you got home.  There is a story from The Book of the Apocrypha, about De Valera as a child in Clare. He and a friend were coming home with a loaf of bread each.  They did what all children did.  ‘What do we say when they ask us did we do it? If we tell a lie, we’ll go to Hell.’  What a dilemma!  ‘Don’t worry,’ replied Dev calmly.  ‘We’ll swap loaves.’ He went a long way in politics.

In fairness, Louis Pasteur saved countless millions of lives. He made childbirth safer. He made the drinking of milk and wine immeasurably safer, but I miss the cream and the little oarsmen and the tilly for the cat. The weather is delivered to us by satellite. It’s more accurate but there’s no news or gossip with it. There is no clip clop of hooves or lorries with coke furnaces and dreadnought chimneys puffing smoke into the sky. I can’t scut anymore. It wouldn’t be seemly anyway. The great J.C. Savage of Swords used to grade his wines by price and quality, from ‘Nectar’ at £5 a bottle; ‘ You’d get up in the middle of the night to drink it.’  £3,   all the way down to   ‘It’s wet and it gets you jarred. What more do you expect  for five bob?’ My wine will be available for home delivery at a modest price. You’ll get up in the middle of the night after drinking it.