Time and the hour run through the longest day


I looked up to this clock for most of my young life. It was on the top mantlepiece, the one most likely to wear a fine film of ash from the fire below. It was out of the reach of small children and is so again, hedged about with the same dire warnings. It punctuated our lives with its soft, harmonious chime… time to get up, time for school, time for the train, dinner time, Rosary time, time for ITMA, The Goons, homework, a story read aloud, O Henry, Joyce..( not James. His uncle. Old Celtic Romances,) The Wind in the Willows. THE PIPS..check the clock. ‘This is the BBC Home Service. Here is the News.’ Better get a move on. Look at the time! I imagined that Ratty had a clock like that in his snug little house on the riverbank. Time for bed…bong bong bong… you have insomnia. Time to get up.

It may have been a wedding present or maybe presentation. It was there before me and I treated it with respect as was fitting. My father might lift me up to see how he wound it.  It absorbed ash, tobacco smoke, piano music, yarns and jokes, arguments and discussions, French and Irish lessons, songs, some hideous skiffle crimes committed by my brother and his mates and all the little dramas of a large family. It is a ‘Witness Clock.’ The key miraculously survived to this day.This ceremony of winding has now become my responsibility. There is an element of tension involved…obviously. It was in intervention for a long time, in my mother’s house. Its mainspring was spavined by some enthusiastic winder. For many years it looked down impassively, taking no part in the proceedings.


Today is Midwinter. The sun rises far to the South. The ancients watched its progress in the great oscillation, bringing light and warmth back to the earth, new life, fertility and harvest and then Winter again. They constructed enormous stone circles to keep track of time by the stars, the Moon and by the rising and setting of the sun.  I’m fortunate enough to have a headland for Winter and islands for the Equinox and Midsummer. I also have a calendar, a watch and now again, the chiming clock of my childhood. No need to ring bells for Matins, Lauds at ungodly hours, Vespers and Compline for a good night’s sleep. Or is that Complan? No need to lug megaliths, menhirs or monoliths to the summits of mountains to catch the fleeting rays. I have been to Newgrange, beside the fabled Boyne, and have seen the amber light creep up the passageway to illuminate the burial chamber at the heart of the mound. It evoked thoughts of countless years and countless millennia, when people looked back at their lives and savoured memories good and bad and looked forward to the coming year with hope and trepidation.  Too long for my mind to grasp. It is as futile as trying to comprehend the immensity of the Universe and the ever expanding Multiverse. The moon will wobble away from us in fifty million or billion years time and we will all be doomed. Don’t worry about it. Even Stephen Hawking has admitted to the odd mistake. It mightn’t be so bad in the long run.  I came home and had my breakfast and went to work. I was probably a bit late.

We took the broken clock to Tom Black, the ingenious clock-mender, on the road from Monasterboice to Termonfeckin, not far from the Boyne.  He performed some heart surgery. He set it to rights again. On the way back we met a childhood friend having lunch with his family. We reminisced. I recalled the time my father told me to dig and rake his vegetable patch…’and get it done by the time I get home..’ He was an occasional gardener but it never lasted too long. The clock was ticking. My friend and his brother looked over the wall.  ‘are you comin’ for a dip in the Captains?’  ‘ I can’t. I have to have this dug before my Dad’s train gets in.’ (5 past 6 from Amiens Street…on the dot). They came over the high wall like a pair of Ninjas, grabbed spades and forks and set to work. We were finished with plenty of time for a dip. I may even have got a tanner for my diligence. I can’t remember but the kindness of the two lads has stayed with me ever since.

I brought the clock home and put it on a high shelf. I noticed that it was in the company of our youngest son, who arrived too late, by a year, to meet his grandfather but knew and loved his Nana for a good many good years. Beside it is  the Chronicle of the 20th Century. My father saw a few years of the 19th Century and four fifths of the 20th. He experienced the worst of it on The Somme but survived to live with those memories of barbarism. My mother saw all but six years of the century and devoted her life to education and to making things better. The clock chimed, prompting a flood of memories. Forget the ancients. I can comprehend the memory of people I have known and loved and those I know and love today. I have a new mainspring. I look forward to a great stretch in the day

You can watch the sun at Newgrange online right now but you may not see much.  Eight minutes to nine by the clock.It’s a bit overcast. I will leave it to the Druids, romantics, astronomers and archaeologists. When the clock chimes nine I shall make some tea and bestir my self and of course, the tea.


The Captains. After Midsummer’s Day. John the Baptist

2014 June garden train hattons wood 017 2014 June garden train hattons wood 052

The artist, Fred McElwee, must have swum here, like thousands of others.He captured the pull and the surge of water at mid tide. No doubt he experienced it at extreme low tide, when you can stand comfortably on the bottom and at high tide when the waves wash over the platform and the current flows through like a river. Sometimes it is enough just to walk down to The Captains and gaze into the water at flickering herring fry, heralds of warm weather and mackerel. They flee in perpetual fear from the terrible jaws of the  mackerel. Their eyes are round and staring, searching, looking this way and that for safety. There is none. I rescued a stranded fry and held it in the water. I resuscitated it by gently squeezing it until a bubble of air emerged from its mouth. Now it could submerge. It wriggled away into the depths. Some day, when I am shipwrecked and clinging to a spar in the swirling waves, a giant herring will find me and say: ‘I remember you. Be not afraid’.   It worked for Androcles and to some extent, for Jonah, so why not for me.

Just be a little afraid in The Captains. The notice used to say: ‘Beware of Rocks and Bootlace Weed.’ It played to our fear of The Deep and the creatures that may lurk there. Bootlace weed won’t hold you if you swim gently through it. It slides off your body like a caress. Very little grows there anyway. Similarly with the big, leathery laminaria. It forms waving, sunlit forests where small fish hover and jellyfish occasionally drift speculatively, seeking whom they may afflict. The notice now says :’Competent Swimmers Only’. No eejits. Beware of diving onto rocks. On your own head be it. Beware of diving onto swimmers too. A friend landed on my head once. It was a pain in the neck. Still is, in damp weather. Right now we are enjoying a heatwave. I must break off here (8 30) and go for my early morning swim in The Captains. The tide is full. I should have it more or less to myself. There will be no hurtling young lads to fall on my head. Nobody will blow a whistle and dragoon me into a sea race.


(11 30) Yes. It was better than I had hoped for. A week ago the water was mind-numbingly cold. The swim made me sad and resentful. Today was perfect; warm, clear water; sunlight glittering on sea, rocks and islands, as far as Lambay;  a haze over the Mournes; a few bright  cumulus, begging to be painted. Go for it, Fred. Moreover, it was all mine. Maybe I am becoming a curmudgeon.   Although melancholy poets write about the Earth tilting like a compass in a binnacle, as it leans away from the Sun and goofy Druids try to prevent it, the summer generally picks up after Midsummer’s Day. There are no thoughts of careering pell-mell into winter. In mediaeval times, young maidens in search of a life partner, danced in the churchyards, among the tombstones, on Saint John’s Eve, June the 23rd. That would be regarded as ‘anti-social activity’ nowadays. That’s John the Baptist, a man not normally associated with levity. In fact a dance cost him his head, poor fellow.

Stevenson said that a young fellow should be a great deal idle in his youth. I did my best. The Captains is a place of fun and sociability for succeeding generations. We argued and laughed and listened to our elders. We learned to dive and swim and practise water-safety. I have my badge from 1955. I am qualified to rescue others besides herring fry. I learned the Halger-Nielson method of resuscitation, where air was pumped back into the lungs by raising and lowering the elbows. Utterly useless for herring fry. There is a manoeuvre whereby you place your foot on the victim’s shoulder and push him/her down into the water while turning him/her around  in order to execute the ‘cross-chest-carry.’ There were no /hers in my class. Drat!  It was the Fifties, after all.  My partner was stout and heavy.(Most kids were skinny). His legs were too short to reach my shoulder. He kicked me severely in the face, (nothing personal) until the instructor gave up on him. He settled for a long cross-chest carry, before awarding the badges.  Fortunately neither of us has been called upon in the intervening years to use our skills.

The late and lugubrious Les Dawson complained about his expensive new shoes. He bought them a size too small. ‘The only pleasure I got out of them was taking them off.’  This very fine ladies’ changing shelter, built in 1956, after desegregation, was a bit like the shoes. It was built of fine Howth Stone, a striking piece of Modernism (?) It immediately became a public latrine. Outside, it was a sun-trap, a windbreak, a vantage point and a forum but you couldn’t go inside because of the stench. Moreover, it was too cold and draughty to serve as a changing room. You could climb onto the roof and sunbathe, if you weren’t afraid of heights. You could carve your initials in the soft stone but you couldn’t shelter in it. It was demolished after about fifty years when it became the focus of ‘anti-social activity’. Maybe the activity was a bit too social. There may have been some dancing. I hope nobody lost his/her head.

At night seaweed stranded by the tide, can glow with phosphorescence. It seems to crackle with other-worldly light. Away from the lights of the town, the stars shine down with startling brightness. It is not advisable however, to swim there in the dark, no matter how romantic it might seem. I have become a curmudgeon. A stranger asked my friend, who was treading water: ‘Eh mister, can you stand there?’  ‘Yes,’ said he,’ but you can’t breathe.’ Bear that in mind.

Waves September 2012 and other pictures 009

There are days when swimming is simply out of the question, (as were most things in the Fifties). The Captains is in there somewhere. Even competent swimmers would be foolish to attempt it. Nevertheless, it always repays a visit, in memories and invigorating fresh air. I wonder if Fred ever painted what he saw under the water.