Size is Relative. The Patter of Tiny Feet. Money Laundering. Brother Bernard and Showbiz.

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You pays your money and you takes your choice/chance. The view from the top is not quite staggering. Small children nowadays, are used to Legoland and Thomasland. They play in specially designed play zones, with enough slides and ladders to tire them out by bedtime. Worth every penny. The carnival amusements were here: chair-o-planes, dodgems, roundabouts and a carousel with horses galloping over an undulating course. There were hoopla stalls, a rifle range of sorts and even a ghost train. Infants rattled the steering wheels off wooden cars and lorries as they whizzed around and around, to screeches of fear and delight. There were occasional thimble-riggers and three-card-trick men to ensnare the gullible. Ensnared by a brilliant sales pitch, I bought a pack of trick cards. Ten of clubs! Ten of clubs! Which card have you picked? Ten of clubs! Amazing! Every second card in the pack was a ten of clubs. They were slightly smaller than the regular cards, so that the nimble fingers of the dealer could always find ten of clubs!! I couldn’t remember the patter. Nor could I find the ..which one was it again? Flop-sweat. Goddammit, I must be gullible.


Build it and they will come. It’s true up to a point. The biggest bull-ring in South America was built in Colonia del Sacramento in 1910. The following year the government outlawed bull fighting. Timing is everything, as with conjuring, comedy and card tricks. They come to The London Eye because it is new. The view from aloft is quite staggering. There is no shuffling, except in the queue. You pays your money etc. They come to the Pyramids and the Colosseum because they are old.


Roll up! Roll up! Will rubber-neckers of the future gaze in wonder at the rusted spokes of The Eye or buddleia sprouting from the ruins of Big Ben? Will a latter-day Barnum sell tickets to The Egress and The Incredible Floating Match on the Thames? Will they come and will they buy? Of course they will.  It’s all in the patter.  Poets will  inevitably, get in on the act. There now is but an Heap of lime and sand/For the Skriech-Owl to build her baleful Bower….All those(O Pity) now are turned to Dust/And overgrown with black Oblivion’s Rust.  A few coats of hammerite and a tarpaulin should get the carnival through the winter. Come along and join my heritage tour of the site, (for a modest fee). A few places still available.


I fell for this one: miniscule human skeletons unearthed near The Boyne, not far from Drogheda. At last, archaeological evidence of The Wee Folk, The Little People, Leprechauns, if you will. Empirical proof that the Good People, The Fairies who lived underground and in our collective imagination, actually existed. The account was couched in scholarly language. The Boyne Valley is overflowing with legends and ancient ruins. Hundreds of thousands of tourists go there every year to gaze at the tombs and megaliths of ancient kings who lived before history began. Those were people who understood magic and the movements of the Sun and stars. The tourists come to wonder and most importantly, to buy tickets. There is no need to shout ‘Roll up! Roll up!’ They want to encounter the magic of antiquity. I wanted to believe. I wanted to see the Little People dancing by moonlight on the sands at Mornington. I wanted to hear their unearthly music sprinkling on the raths and tumuli of legend. The evidence showed that they ate fish and hunted moles. Moles? In Ireland? I should have smelt a rat. Goddammit, I must be gullible. Of course, the Fairies (not that I really believe in them) are noted for their trickery. Maybe this is the distraction technique beloved of conjurors, pick-pockets and three-card-tricksters. Maybe they put mole bones in their graves to deceive us into thinking that they were never there in the first place; that it is all a hoax. Maybe I’m not so gullible after all.

Brother Bernard was charged with raising funds for the building of a new school. The blood of the great Barnum flowed in his veins. There was a touch of gentility about him. He claimed to have taught Prince Rainier of Monaco. Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen. He organised concerts and played to packed halls. We had conjurors, comedians and opera singers.  We had Juno and the Paycock and John B. Keane.We had Charlie McGee and his gay guitar.  It was a miniscule Palace of Varieties. He bought a new piano for the school. He directed us to dispose of the old wreck of a piano  by throwing it off the fire escape. It went out with a bang, crash, tinkle, tinkle. Pure showbiz. I looked down at it. It had become an archaeopteryx fossil in the yard below, with bones and arpeggios in a pile and teeth scattered far and wide. We should have left it for the archaeologists to ponder over in times to come.

He sponsored the carnival and took a percentage. This meant that senior boys were expected to lend a hand. I collected pennies from children on roundabouts and swings. I originated ‘the Moon Walk’ later popularised by Michael Jackson. I hadn’t meant to do it, but sometimes the roundabout started before I had got to all the customers. I learned about how centrifugal force can hurl you off the spinning disc in ignominious fashion, if you don’t hold on, to the great amusement of the kiddies. I collected tickets at the door of the Wee Man’s tent. He was about two feet tall. He was dressed as a leprechaun. He sat on an upturned pint glass and endured the guffaws and ribaldry of the spectators. He laughed a lot. It was probably the saddest thing I had ever seen. I applied for a transfer to the chair-o-planes.

Brother Bernard’s piece de résistence was the clothes line with one hundred pound notes pegged to it. The raffle took place at midnight….every night, ladies and gentlemen. The line was raised to much fanfare and patter, early in the evening. People came to gaze. The dreams of avarice. The pot o’ gold.  He did more for temperance than Father Matthew, because the pubs emptied out early as everyone wanted to share in the dream. They believed. It could be you. Prince Rainier, with his palace and his film stars and his glittering casino and his suave dinner-jacketed guests and racing cars and mega yachts, wasn’t a patch on Brother Bernard. You can’t fool me. I never heard tell of any clothes-line with £100 notes, fluttering in the balmy Mediterranean night air. Them was the days, Joxer. Them was the days.

Rien ne va plus

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Show me the Money


It was appropriate that Dermot should deliver the container of coins. He drove a van for Peter Lyons’s bakery in Drogheda, a van that advertised gold-medal-winning bread, gold medals from London in 1883 and 88. The medals were depicted on the van. I thought that Peter needed to lift his game, seventy years on. You’re only as good as your last loaf. It was nice bread all the same. Perhaps English tastes had changed, over the years. He made lovely buns too. Taste is a strange thing. I remember bread vans passing one another in opposite directions, to and fro. The goods from elsewhere are always more exotic, even if it’s only from Drogheda or Navan. When we got old enough to be cool, we referred to money as bread. Very cool.

Dermot conveyed the coins for a young Drogheda swain who fancied my sister. The swain ( a ludicrous word, inviting amused ridicule) wasted his time in being nice to the young brother. I got to ride on his racing bike—one leg under the crossbar, not quite Anquetil or Fausto Coppi. There were loads of gears and a derailleur to catch the unwary. (Derailleur—sounds like an accident.) I didn’t need bicycle clips, as I was still in short trousers. I still have most of the coins. The swain got nowhere. ‘On yer bike,’ the most peremptory of dismissals. I knew a student who brought his bicycle clips when he went out drinking, but we needn’t dwell on that.

Some of the coins disappeared into our childrens’ school projects. Our grandchildren use them to make roads for toy cars. They are no longer in mint condition, no longer ’eminently collectible,’ as they say on the antique shows, I like to think that I have lost hundreds of thousands of Euro in value, through my neglect. It’s only money. What is money? I never understood it. Somebody out there dials numbers into my account. I don’t see any cash. I stick a plastic card into a machine and (occasionally) cash comes out. I can offer this card in shops and dial in a secret code. Nobody gets any cash, but on a good day, I walk away with goods. (Economists use the singular form, a good.) ‘Can I help you, Sir?’ ‘Yes please. I wish to purchase a good.’ ‘Very good, Sir.’ Economists tell us that this carry-on saves the banks a great deal of money. I ask for nothing from the dismal scientists, nada, nowt, nichevo, zilch, zero,  maybe a few zeros on the end of the sum dialled into my account. It can’t hurt anyone to add a few nothings. It would stimulate trade. I would feel good.

I got an email inviting me to invest in Bitcoins. When I opened it, the screen was blank. The attraction of Bitcoins is that they don’t exist. A finite number of Bitcoins was “mined”. You can create a “virtual wallet” in which to store them. They increase in value because they are rare.They don’t rain from Heaven. You can’t spend an idle afternoon tossing them on a street corner. They don’t jingle in your pocket or drop, when you get the joke, or realise something that had eluded you for years. You can’t stick one in a machine and win a jackpot. I suspect that they exist only in an algorithm, a word beyond the ken of ordinary mortals. The modern alchemists transmute numbers into wealth, or so they assure us. Don’t forget the little spot, the decimal point. Things that are rare, have value, like the emperor’s new clothes.

By a circuitous route, this brings me to King George V, Rex Ind Imp Fid Def  and more. His butler brought the freshly ironed newspaper to him, one morning. ‘I see, Your Majesty, that someone has paid £40,000.00 for a stamp.’ Light early morning conversation with the King-Emperor. ‘What idiot would pay that amount of money for a stamp?’  The king was a keen stamp collector. ‘Actually,’ rumbled His Majesty, ‘I am that idiot.’ (Figures open to revision.) Philately will get you nowhere. I grouped the coins with his image, to represent some of the colonies collected by him and his forebears. He wears the imperial crown abroad, but rarely at home. Still, he looks the part. [click on the large group and then click on individual coins]  I loved the sense of elsewhere: British Borneo, Rhodesia, Suid Afrika, Canada, Hong Kong, East Caribbean States, Guernsey, Straits Settlements (Dire, or otherwise?) Hibernia and of course, the Jewel in the Crown, British India. I loved the artistry of the coin makers, the arms of the colonies, emu and kangaroo rampant, the echidna, the weapons and implements, the flowers and wildlife. It was a wide world. There are a few silver ones but no gold.

Why gold? There will be no more gold. It was formed at the heart of a supernova. It is finite, in this galaxy anyway. It drives people mad. They go out into lonely places and tear the earth apart in the quest for this precious metal. You can make teeth out of it. Ancient emperors made grave goods out of it, in an effort to take it with them. A former TB patient told me that he was just in time for the new drugs. Shortly before his time, patients got trial gold injections. They perked up immediately but after a week, they turned blue and died.  You can buy gold-plated bathroom taps and possibly a gold-plated car.  It doesn’t tarnish. Most of all, it backs currencies–or used to. Theoretically you can exchange a note for its equivalent in gold, but you can’t. The pound note guaranteed that you could exchange it for a pound in silver, not a pound of silver, but ten florins, made of nickle. They were called silver coins.


It’s a nice chair, but it could do with some cushions. The arm rests are too thin. They would cut off the circulation if you tried to read the paper.

During World War II, South Africa provided Britain with its gold. There are ships at the bottom of the sea, packed to the gunwales with South African gold ingots. There are even sunken submarines full of gold. The South Africans resorted to smelting the gold for Britain and storing it in vaults, pending the end of the war. They issued certificates for the equivalent amount of gold. Then they hit upon a wheeze. Why not leave the gold underground in the mines, where it was safe, instead of mining, smelting and guarding it in vaults —under the ground? Brilliant! They issued certificates for the value of the gold that they didn’t mine. The certificates were made of paper. They worked just as well as the metal. Nowadays they would be electronic transactions. Like the alchemists of old, the important thing is to believe.

The Irish coins, above, show sturdy farm animals, fish,  a hound, poultry. I’m missing a few, a hare, a woodcock, a pig.  I put a Spanish horse beside the Irish hunter. The Spanish horse is rearing up in flamboyant fashion. The first designs for our currency were made by an Italian, altogether too extravagant for us. Percy Metcalfe took things in hand. He gave us our own animals, not a lot of Renaissance, over-endowed bulls and stallions scandalising the spending public. You may see the rejected designs in the National Museum.  The Portuguese like ships, expressive of their great seafarers and their colonial empire. Empires like eagles, spreadeagles and two-headed eagles. My all time favourite is the American buffalo five cent piece. There is a Native American on the other side, a story of a vanishing history. ‘In God We Trust’—all others pay cash.

A bruised and aggrieved gentleman took a young lady to court for assault and battery. ‘Why did you strike the gentleman?’ asked the judge. ‘ ‘Because he called me a two-bit hooker, your honour,’ she replied. ‘And what did you strike him with?’  ‘I hit him with a bag of nickles, your honour.’ It might have been safer to tender her a cheque.


Our Minister for Justice rented a house in Skerries for a month in the summer. Dermot knew nothing about this change of occupancy. He arrived with his usual delivery. It was raining. He sprinted for the door, with an armload of bread. Suddenly he was pinned to the ground by two armed Special Branch men. On another occasion he sprinted to my neighbour’s house with a similar armful. It was also raining. The neighbour’s wife opened the door. Dermot’s momentum carried him into the parquet floored hallway. They both slipped. The bread went everywhere. They couldn’t get up. My neighbour, hearing the commotion, ran out to find his wife on the flat of her back and Dermot spreadeagled on top of her. Did he notice that Dermot had lovely buns? He never mentioned that.

Our sturdy coins have dwindled, just as King George’s Empire has dwindled. The shilling bull has shrunken to a 5c calf. The salmon has become a sardine. It costs more than 1c to mint a 1c coin. The gold is in the stories, not in the sovereigns, guineas or medals. If you find that your faith in money has been shaken by any of the foregoing, you may send your cash to me. I will put it under my mattress and keep it safe, like the French peasants were always reputed to do when war was threatening. No Bitcoins please. Coin of the realm only. I will give you a receipt.

United Colours of Drogheda.


I had to go into the Black Bull Inn, purely in the interests of research. As long as I could remember, the bull was black, as the sign might suggest. Then one day he was white. That was all right in a way. On an old negative, he would be black. Another time he was gold. There was a sign for a Chinese restaurant in the vicinity and I was in busy traffic. Black and gold is a popular combination in Chinese restaurants, a touch of oriental splendour. So all right again.  But pink? A pink elephant might convey the wrong message. Not far up the road, in Cooley, there was a famous brown bull. He gave rise to an epic poem, The Táin, with Queen Maeve and Cúchulainn and poor old Ferdia, who was killed by his friend at Ardee. Cúchulainn had a tendency to kill anyone who passed his way. This made him a hero and inspired poets. His wife, Emer, came from Lusk, some say, Loughshinny. They’re all very civil men up there. You would wonder why she ran away with a killer.

I thought of going to Specsavers but everything seemed to be all right. Anyway, I made a point of going back to photograph the paradox, the anomaly. The bull, as you can see, was pink. This called for investigation. It is a very pleasant place, with a convenient car park.  It would have been nice to lose an afternoon there, as my Uncle Jack often did, sixty years ago. Jack was no stranger to epics, but only in the sense of drinking bouts. A man could become a hero through drink, at least in the eyes of his comrades. However, the days when the drunken driver was a bit of a character, a rapscallion, a wag, are long gone and I had miles to go. The Drogheda road is a busy one, attracting the attention of the forces of law and order. I had a tonic water, with ice and lemon. It tastes all right and the quinine keeps the malaria at bay. Margaret had a Merlot and I reminisced.  The quinine stimulated my memory.

In fairness to Jack, he didn’t drive a car when he lived with us. He came to stay, during a hiatus in his career. His older sister, my mother, spoke sternly to him, telling him to get his act together. Oddly enough, my father enjoyed having him around. Jack had wit and humour. He was always on the verge of a major reformation. He had plans. ‘That garden will be a show garden, by the time I’m finished with it.’ He cut some grass with a shears and then felt a pressing need to go down to the Post Office. It was too dark to go back to the grass cutting, by the time he got back. He was a chemist by profession, having slipped aside from his medical studies. He sent two of us up to the quarry to get a bucketful of burnt lime. He was going to whitewash that shed, inside and out, the coal shed, as it happened. Why would you whitewash the inside of a coal shed? We struggled home with the bucket of rocks. He explained about quicklime, and pouring water onto the rocks. We had to stand well back. ‘That stuff would burn all the flesh off your hand, right down to the bone.’ I imagined myself going into school the next day, with a skeletal hand up my sleeve. Aha! That would scare them. I stood well back. The lime seethed in the bucket and turned a brilliant white. I was impressed. The next day he whitewashed the shed, down as far as the pile of coal. It made a nice contrast.

He occasionally took us out for walks. Sometimes he bought ice cream at Stokes’s shop in the Caltex garage. ‘Stay there and eat that,’ he would say, ‘and use your loaf.’ Then he would disappear down to Val Hatton’s bar in New Street, for a quick one.

‘Well,’ my mother said, ‘did you have a nice walk with Uncle Jack?’

‘Oh yes. He bought us ice cream and told us to wait for him and use our loaf. What does that mean? Use your loaf?’

I know now and I know why there were sharp intakes of breath and daggers looks. Nabbed again.

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He took us to the cinema in Balbriggan. We went by train. It was quite an adventure to go over the big viaduct at the harbour. ‘It’s limestone, of course, he explained, adding something about the great Victorian engineers. ‘It’s the same limestone as we used to whitewash the shed.’ Amazing stuff. I have only the vaguest recollection of the film. Everyone had a tendency to burst into song. There were no cowboys, like you would have in a proper film.

‘How did you enjoy the film?’ my mother enquired. ‘Did you behave for Uncle Jack?’

‘ It was all right.’

‘All right? All right? Is that all you can say? All right?  That’s the last time I’ll take any of you to the cinema.’ He was very offended.

He did bring us to see Ivanhoe. Gallant knights clashed in the lists at Ashby de la Zouche. I loved the name. It was all colour and panoply. He was annoyed. ”That’s all poppycock. They didn’t have all those colours in the Middle Ages. They had only five pigments’. Maybe he said eleven or seven. I can state with great authority that they had only five, seven, or eleven pigments until the great Victorian chemists invented the myriad of chemical colours that we take for granted today. The Great Exhibition…imperial purple out of a test tube. That’s what my Uncle Jack said.

He almost married a girl from Drogheda when he went to work there. My mother approved of her. She would straighten him out. ‘You do right by that girl,’ she warned him. We wanted him to marry her too. Her family made the best sausages in Ireland and still do. Ah! what might have been. Too many epic sieges, possibly in the Black Bull. The name cropped up in conversations. Drogheda is a busy seaport . There was a woman with seven children all of varying colours, by seven sea-faring men. He asked her why she had never married. ‘Ah, Mr. Carty,’ she replied, ‘I’d rather have seven bastards than one bad husband.’ Not a great recommendation for marriage. He never got his act together in Drogheda.


He went across the water, possibly by train, over the viaduct. It’s Sheephouse limestone, by the way, 150 years old and still as good as ever.  He settled in Bradford, working for Imperial Chemical Industries. It sounds impressive. Perhaps he lived a colourful life there. He kept it private.He loved to walk on the moors and in the Pennines. ‘Like a dose of salts.’ Salts were the standard remedy for all ills in those days. He wrote at Christmas, enclosing money to be shared among us children,’so that they may purchase whatsoever noxious sweetmeats they desire.’ That was all right too. He had only one argument with my father… about the spelling of all right/alright. It seems that either one is …ok. He was a fairly regular correspondent.

Margaret had another Merlot to ward off ennui. I told her how, when he died, his widow wrote to sympathise with my mother. His what? She said that he had been a good husband and father to his twenty two year stepson old. All very strange. They had spent their honeymoon in Ireland and never thought to call in. My mother  drew her breath in sharply. Typical Jack, but I think she was pleased that he had got his act together at last.

I had to ask the young lady in the bar about the bull. ‘Do you not think he’s embarrassed about being painted pink? He’s a bull, after all.’

‘Oh,’ she explained, ‘we paint him different colours to publicise different campaigns. There’s a big fund-raiser for breast cancer research this month. He’s not a bit embarrassed.


The Boyne, a stream of consciousness. A Tomb with a view. High Rollers.

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The new bridge at Oldbridge looms out of the rain-soaked trees like a giant. No doubt the old bridge was once new, as were we all at one time. Not far from here the giant, Finn MacCool, tasted the Salmon of Knowledge, caught by the druid, Aenghus. Aenghus spent his life in a lonely vigil by the river, waiting for the wondrous fish. He caught it and set it to cook over the fire. He instructed the boy, Finn, to mind it, but on no account to taste it. Finn complied, but became fascinated by a heat bubble on the fish’s skin. He poked it with his thumb, as any boy would, and burned it. Instinctively, he put his thumb in his mouth to ease the pain and tasted -Knowledge. Forever afterwards he could put his thumb to his tooth and know the answer to any question. He used it sparingly. He had knowledge certainly, but no guarantee of wisdom.

A mile or two away stands Newgrange, half hidden on this particularly day, by drifting veils of rain. It dominates the bend of the Boyne where kings were buried. This part of the Boyne valley is a necropolis, with ancient tombs everywhere, where the living come in their tens of thousands to wonder at the mystery of it all. There is a melancholy glamour to the place. At mid-winter the rising sun sends a shaft of light through the ‘light box’ over the entrance, directly into the burial chamber. What does that signify? What do the carved stones signify? If, like Finn, we knew the answers, the mystery would evaporate. Newgrange would become an exercise in building techniques. It is remarkably dry inside, even after five thousand years or more. Let the experts dig and speculate. I preferred it with its weeds and thistles, as it was when I first saw it. I picked up one of the white quartz stones, strewn all over the mound and contemplated taking it as a souvenir. Then I thought of legends and superstitions and retribution reaching out from the grave. I put it back. Now the white quartz has been assembled into a facade around the entrance. It’s as good a guess as any, although there is a touch of Odeon Cinema about it.

Our young children loved Newgrange, ‘The Hairy House’ because of the grass on top. They rolled down the slope. Try it. It is exhilarating now that the weeds and thistles are gone. Be careful not to bang your head on an elaborately carved stone, or you may become part of the legend. Give your valuables into safe keeping or you may contribute unwittingly to the lost treasure of Newgrange. The tomb was plundered centuries ago, but the plunderers overlooked three quid.

Fergus found the loot behind one of the massive stones in the inner chamber. His attention strayed from the guide’s learned disquisition, as any small boy’s would. He investigated all crevices for treasure and pulled out three fresh green pound notes. He stared at them, his eyes round with wonder. He had a quick look around and stuffed them into his pocket, as any opportunist small boy would, but he could not contain the excitement of it all.
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He declared them to me. I explained that we would have to enquire as to ownership. I explained about honesty being the best policy- pompous old fart. I mentioned the matter at the ticket office. Fergus kept a tight grip on the notes. He looked up at me. I know what he was thinking. ‘You’re going to blow it, you idiot. You’re going to blow it.’ The lady in the office smiled. She told him to keep them as nobody had enquired about them. Now that was wisdom. His eyes grew even wider. He relaxed, thinking of Lion bars and ice cream..

That was a profitable day. We called in to Saint Peter’s church to light a candle for Blessed Oliver Plunkett, as you must when passing through Drogheda.. He didn’t look well. He looked like a painting by that merry, laughing fellow, Edvard Munch. The candles had been electrified. The children discovered that for one coin, you could press all the switches and light all the candles, one by one. ‘It’s very good value,’ they agreed. No wonder the Pope made him a saint shortly afterwards.

My little grand-daughter, more recently, told me the story of her pal, Oliver. The bad guys caught him and brought him down to McDonald’s, where they cut off his head. She was indignant. Some dastardly deeds have been done beside the gliding Boyne. She still enjoyed the burger and fries, though.

The Plunkett family knew the soldier poet, Ledwidge. They encouraged him to write and to enlist in the army. He wrote of home and the girl he loved and the blackbird that sang beside the mossy stone, where they met. His white memorial stone stands among thousands of others in Flanders, but his memory lives on.

There is a damson tree in the garden of his cottage near the Boyne. The damsons taste of memories. They taste sweet.