Twelve Acres and Angels…..

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My father-in-law, Barney Duignan, was at one time, the youngest sergeant in the Garda Síochána, or The Civic Guards as they were called at the founding of the force. He was eighteen at the time, one of the first to join. This was at the time of the foundation of the state, when a bitter and brutal civil war was in progress. It is difficult to overstate the courage and dedication of those young men who went out, unarmed, to enforce the law in a land where assassination and reprisal had become the norm. Likewise it is impossible to adequately acknowledge the debt owed by our country to those who by moral force, gained acceptance for the authority of the democratically elected government. His first posting was Tallaght, a country village in County Dublin. He cycled out, with Paddy Glynn on the crossbar of his bike, to open the first police station in the village. Paddy Glynn was later, the sergeant in Skerries for many years. Barney went on to achieve the rank of Chief Superintendent, driven by an inflexible respect for the law, justice and public service.  There he is, standing beside a biplane in the Twelve Acres field in Skerries, some time in the 1920’s. It amused him to point  out that he had flown from the field in which our house now stands. He survived the hazards of early aviation and equally, he survived the hazards of smoking. Smoking beside high-octane aviation fuel can seriously damage your health. I have spotted him in old photographs of motor cycle races, marshalling the crowds that thronged onto Strand Street. The smell of the high-octane petrol still brings me back to the excitement of the Skerries 100.  I have seen the letter of commendation he received from the RNLI. Although he had the countryman’s dread of the sea, he volunteered one night to make up the numbers in the lifeboat. ‘It was my duty.’ Simple as that.

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I heard John B. Keane talking about the spiritual importance of a field. A field is the product of effort and the accumulation of memories and associations. What a great field it was. Despite the name, I understand that it contained twenty five Irish acres. Irish acres were introduced during the time of the confiscations to take more land while making the theft sound less excessive. I don’t know how this worked out at twelve. I saw cricket matches there and the bivouacs of the LDF. There was a gymkhana in The Twelve Acres and a horse show. I can recall how the earth trembled under the hooves of the enormous draught horses. Their manes were plaited with ribbons. Their tails were plaited in like manner.Their necks arched as gracefully as the necks of the Parthenon horses. Their harness shone with burnished brass. Their flanks were combed and gleaming and they wore their white-tufted fetlocks with the panache of a regiment of prancing Zulu warriors. You could easily see how a line of heavy cavalry would strike terror into an opposing army. The Pony Daly had a plough-horse in the show. We wanted him to win as he was a friend of our parents. I can’t remember the result but the hooves still pound in my memory. The nomads of the various travelling circuses set up their tents here. The excitement was almost too much for small children. From our back window, you could see the poles of the big top rising into the sky and the striped tent materialising, as if by magic. There was magic. They were real circuses, with elephants and lions. They had monkeys and horses and trapeze artists defying gravity. They had clowns. I still dread clowns. The clowns had a collapsing motor car that backfired. Is there anything as funny as a backfiring car? I had a few cars like that. Not a bit funny.

We crossed this field with our father, on autumn mornings, on our way to the mushroom fields along the cliffs. We went in by the stile at the Red Shed. That was a barn, always filled with hay and straw. It would have made a great hangar. He showed us where the soldiers had cut rifle slots in the corrugated iron in 1916. The farmer had claimed compensation from the War Office, for damage to his barn. He wanted a new barn. Due to the ‘exigencies of the war effort’ they could not provide him with a barn but they sent him the cost of repair. Lloyd George was in government. What would you expect?  The barn was patched with pieces of iron, bolted into place like giant pot-menders. They rusted. The barn rusted. Red lead could not halt the decline. The rectangle of the barn became a trapezium. It inclined. It sagged and eventually disintegrated, around the time that the British Empire did likewise. All that red on the world map in school was really rust.

At the extreme S.E. corner of the field stood Cheeser Barrett’s forge. He wore a ‘cheese-cutter’ cap, still popular with sailing folk, despite the ubiquitous baseball cap. Cheeser saw his trade decline, with the advent of tractors and motor transport. Horses became a rarity. As a man of action and a serious drinking man, he occasionally took matters into his own hands. I saw him standing in the middle of the road, swinging at the passing traffic with an iron bar. Perhaps he resented the petrol fumes.  He made a big impact on me, as a symbol of the passing of an old way of life, just as he no doubt made an impact on the passing motorists. We all handle change in our different ways.

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We bought a house at the extreme N .E.corner of the new development. We saw the field turn into a World War I landscape as new roads were laid and the slope was graded. Poppies and thistles grew everywhere. Margaret describes how she saw me coming home from the train, carrying a child on my shoulders, through a blizzard of thistledown. The thistledown drifted on the breeze. There are a few descendants still lurking in our garden. The children called them angels. The angels drifted in through open windows and sailed around the house. The children blew them aloft and laughed as the little parachutes drifted languidly about the room. The dandelion clocks told the time on long summer days as we set our house and gardens in order. There are still some dandelions too but …live and let live. The Twelve Acres has been good to us.

Barney delighted in his grandchildren and they in him. I never imagined him as an angel but I like to think that maybe occasionally, he circles above the Twelve Acres field to keep an eye on things, as any vigilant Guard would.

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J. (snif)F. McGowan, Scruples and the Food of the Gods.

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One of the great hazards for parents in the raising of children, is the fact that children see clearly and say what they think. They haven’t yet learnt the restraints of good manners and tact. They stare. They speak aloud in church. ‘Why has that grandaddy got a big nose?’ He had too, a magnificent bulbous conk with road-maps of veins on a lurid purple background. There were little craters caused by many a siege of drink. I had been wondering about it too. ‘But why has he got a big nose?’ It was spectacular. ‘Shhh, shhh’ was the best I could manage. ‘Is this the bloody bus, Daddy? Why is it a bloody bus? We didn’t miss the bloody bus.’  ‘Shhh,shhhh.’ An attractive young lady sitting opposite, began to giggle. ‘I like the bloody bus.’  Shhh,shhh.’ We were on a warning any time that we went into J.F. McGowan’s shop. J.F.punctuated every syllable with a sniff. ‘Don’t stare.’ Don’t giggle, especially if your brother punctuates every sniff with a nudge. ‘He is scrupulously clean, you know,’ my mother would say by way of summing up the frequent discussions about J.F. We could sniff all do a sniff good sniff impression although sniff it was sniffly forbidden.  He wore a scrupulously clean white shop coat. He ran a scrupulously clean Victorian style grocery shop. Serious business was transacted there. His sisters, The Misses McGowan, ran a sweet shop next door. That was the business, or bees knees as wittier boys would say. I never quite understood that. That’s a Miss McGowan sitting at the upstairs window. A young girl. I knew her as an old lady, behind a glass counter full of sweets. You probably remember your own catalogue of sweets and toffee bars from those days. Honey-bee bars were by far my favourite. Gloriously sweet, they softened in the warmth of your hand. You could literally stretch one out to last a whole afternoon. They picked up fluff and sand from your pocket, giving extra texture. They cost a penny each. I had a penny once, a dull, brown one with a hen, a harp and some chickens.

I know what a scruple is. I learned it in the school across the road; scruples, grains and grammes..Apothecaries’ measure. We learned Troy weight and Avoirdupois tables… pounds, ounces, stones, hundredweight and tons….miles, furlongs, perches, rods….roods, acres, square miles and square miles(Irish)… Most of all, we learned how to transmute numbers into money……4×12=48…pence four shillings. 3×9=27…pence two and three. That’s two shillings and thrippence. Simple. Four shillings would buy all the purple-wrapped chocolate in The Misses McGowans’ shop across the road. There were purple boxes of chocolate in glass cases with sliding doors. Some boxes had wonderful pictures on the lids. You could paint the town red with four shillings. Cadburys painted their own town, Bournville, purple but it has no pub…so you couldn’t paint the town red anyway. Never mind. I had a penny. I could have gone to Annie Murray who sold aniseed balls and penny bars. I could also have gone to Miss Collins’s shop at the other end of the row. I hesitated. A classmate and a crony, a side-kick, a partner in crime, stopped me. He offered to swap his shiny new penny for my dirty, old worn one. He showed it to me. I was wary. Why would he do that? I should have been suspicious because of the way he held it, encircled by forefinger and thumb. I could see the shiny harp, far brighter than my one. His pal extolled the merits of shiny money. I was dazzled. I made the trade. They turned and ran. I can still see the soles of their shoes as they disappeared down the street, two clean pairs of heels. I can hear their laughter. Why would they do that?  I looked at the ha’penny in my palm in utter astonishment. There was a shiny harp all right and a shiny pig with some shiny piglets on the other side. I’m still astonished by the rip-off. That expression didn’t exist at that time. They weren’t scrupulously honest in their dealings. I had to settle for a couple of aniseed balls. It’s too late now, sixty eight years or so after the crime, to instigate legal action. I have no witnesses. I thought he was one of the good guys. I still do. Strange.

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A teacher told me not to use yellow in painting. ‘Yellow is a vulgar colour’. I believed him for years and painted turgid brown pictures. One day I discovered yellow and the sun came out. There are many different yellows. My former bank manager, for whom I had written some of my best fiction, met me in a shop. ‘How’s the writing going?’ he asked. ‘Not too bad,’ I replied, ‘but I haven’t struck gold yet.’ He smiled. ”Maybe you have.’ I took his words to heart. I have managed to keep myself uncontaminated by wealth for most of my life. I never see a ‘great deal’.  I don’t think I have ever ripped off  ‘a sucker’. Neither though, have I bought any gold bricks from philanthropic fellows on street corners, or real estate in the Everglades. I learned a hard lesson outside J.F. McGowan’s. So where is the gold?

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A little grandchild plucked a dandelion for his Nana, who was going into hospital for an operation. Another one gave me a chocolate egg from a yellow bag. Another one made a get-well card for her. It is bright yellow. The sun is shining.

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The other grandchildren and our children, rang up with advice and encouragement. ‘These doctors know what they are doing. Don’t worry.’ An old lady in the hospital advised me to eat only yellow food, to ward off glaucoma. I will look into it. A little yellow man kept me out of the traffic. Ronald MacDonald dropped in to cheer me up. A great man, Ronald. I could never fill his shoes.

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It seems that the doctors do know what they are doing. Nana is on the mend. The sun came up this morning. The bees knees. The gold is all around us.

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J.F.had his own heart-breaking personal tragedy. We should not have giggled at his sniffing, but we were children.