Creeping like snail, unwillingly to school.


There was a man living ‘down the town’ who bought a house halfway up the Dublin Road, in order to avoid this stretch, on his walk to the train every morning. This is the bit where the road runs across a causeway between Nicky Ellis’s field on the right and Foxy Gowan’s on the left. There is no hiding from the wind and rain on this stretch of road. He said that this bit of road put him in a bad mood, before the day’s work even began. The move suited him. I never saw him in a bad mood. He liked gardening, fishing and sailing. He bought a handsome, bay-windowed house with Virginia creeper all over it. He reprimanded me in later life, for not pruning my roses, with  a strong hint that he would be back to inspect them. I did as I was told.


I hated that stretch even more, because the school lay at the bottom of the road. The school was cold and draughty too. The wind found every crack and ill-fitting window. However, it had to be endured. The problem was getting there. Halfway down on the left, McCarthys lived in a bungalow, with a garden and a wooden gate.I can’t remember the McCarthys but I remember their dog. A scrabble of claws on concrete, when he detected us on the way to school; a deep soul-shuddering ‘RORF RORF’ and a crash as he hit the wooden gate at speed.The latch leaped and jangled. Would the bolt hold? He was a boxer-great Dane-mastiff-wolverine cross breed. We called him Mong, short for Mongrel, the most insulting word we knew for a dog.  The happiness or otherwise, of the day depended on whether McCarthys’ gate was open or shut. If shut, we could mutter insults as we crept past. ‘Yah, Mong.’  If open, he would chase us out onto the road, snarling and snapping. If there had been cars, which there were not, it would not have mattered. Terror is blind. I hated him. I hate him still. If I go to Hell, in the next world, however undeservedly, it will be some consolation to see him roasting on a spit of flame. Of course he may be one of my tormentors. Not if there is any justice.  I shall stroll nonchalantly through the fields of fire and brimstone, to watch the devils turning him  over the fire. ‘Yah, Mong.’

The lesser problem in going to school, was the fact that my big brothers held me by either hand. They blamed me for going too slow. In fact, they were going too fast. My little legs could not keep pace. ‘Come on! We’ll be late for tables.’  Tables were the morning ritual, a musical acquisition of knowledge. ‘Seven sevens are fortynine, four shillings and one penny. Five tens are fifty, four shillings and tuppence.’ In fact it was syncopated to ‘fornapenny, fiveantwo,’ and so on. We were human comptometers, cash registers, almost computers, by the age of six or seven.  It is only when you translate the present money into real money, do you realise that a Mars bar costs sixteen shillings. ‘We’ll be late for tables.’  After we had got past Mong, a new panic set in. They ran. I flapped between them like a ragged Tibetan prayer-flag in the cold Himalayan wind. I yelled and prayed but there was no let-up, until Daisy Cooper intervened. She spoke to my mother about the daily torture. My brothers throttled back. My feet touched the ground.

I liked Daisy. She had a good natured dog, called Kaffir. He was stiff, as if assembled from odd bits of wood. He had no knees. He was covered in short curly hair, black, with streaks of grey, probably because of the stress of living across the road from Mong. Daisy looked after her sister, who slipped on seaweed at The Springboards as a child, and broke her hip. The hip never mended. She was fortunate in having Daisy. I wondered about Daisy, Daisy, give me your anserdoo. What could that mean? We wrote Ans at the end of a sum in our copybooks. We wrote it triumphantly, like magicians pulling rabbits from hats. I tried a little literary flourish. I wrote Anser. I should have written Anserdoo, in order to introduce a little levity into the proceedings. The teacher explained that there should be a w. All very strange. I had a lot to learn. Daisy once complimented me on my whistling. That was after McCarthy’s moved away, taking their evil mongrel with them. I can say it out loud now. ‘Yah, Mong.’ I don’t know if any young man ever asked Daisy to take a spin on a bicycle-made-for-two. I wouldn’t blame her if she refused. There is a convention that the lady sits at the back. The man makes all the decisions. He enjoys the bracing fresh air. He admires the scenery. She does as much work and gets a view of his least attractive feature.


You could of course, avoid Mong, by making a detour around by the mill and down through the fields. You had to weigh the pros and cons: the joy of walking to school in peace, against the anger of the teacher for missing tables. My mathematical skills suffered and have never recovered. I find darts a challenging game. I still can’t manage money. There was a boy in school who never liked to commit himself too deeply. ‘What’s seven sevens, Andy?’  ‘About fifty, Sir.’  Near enough  for all practical purposes.

On the way home, time was on our side. We could detour through the fields and the Ballast Pit. There was a man who used to pooch through the dump. He was about three score and ten years old, impossibly old and too slow to catch you if you shouted his name. This was just as well, as he carried a sack. ‘That man will put you in a sack,’ our mother warned us. ‘He’ll take you away.’  I suppose I understand her now. He was too old to run after us. He couldn’t climb up to our cave where the remains of an old wall cantilevered out from the gravel cliff. We dug under the foundations and hid there, safe from Mong and old men with sacks.  The gravel fell away.The wall snapped off and shattered into the pit below. I have some of the blocks in my garden now, not too many as I am too old ( about three score and baker’s dozen) to be carrying lumps of old walls around. I carried them up out of the pit, in a sack. (We prune the roses assiduously—and we have planted some Virginia Creeper.)

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Foxy could run, though. We watched him ploughing his field, now the GAA pitch. We waited until he was at the far end and shouted ‘Yah, Foxy!’ Quite witty, but a bad move. He abandoned horse and plough and covered the length of the field in two strides. No Gaelic player has ever equalled his speed over that ground. He came up the bank and over the wall like an avenging fury, before we could even think to run. He shook us until our teeth rattled. He demanded our names. He spoke to our parents. We never shouted at Foxy after that. I wonder if he was on steroids.

Harps, schools 008

There was little or no traffic on the Dublin Road, except for Bill Harrington’s father’s car. It was, more correctly, an automobile, a Studebaker, with a kind of rocket device on the grilel and a boot that stuck out at the back. Americans would say ‘ trunk.’  No other car stuck out at the back. I remember it as being a silvery, metallic, blue, utterly glamorous and exciting to see. Cars were supposed to be black and vertical at the back. Better than a bicycle-made-for-two anyway. Nowadays, when I go to call on my brother at the top of the Dublin Road, I take my life in my hands, crossing the road. On the plus side, I can walk up the road without fear of dogs and I don’t have to go to school.


Home Deliveries, the greatest thing since sliced bread.

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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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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.