Old Lifeboat House, 1906 –2014.

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This was the lifeboat house in its heroic age, a century ago. The picture tells the story. The launch of the lifeboat was a momentous spectacle. Everyone came to watch, ladies in summer dresses, young men in flannels and knickerbockers, barefoot urchins, sturdy men in cork lifejackets. You can imagine the buzz of conversation and the clunk of the wheels on a fine Sunday morning. Fewer would have turned up to watch a launch in a howling gale with rain slanting in from the east and waves thundering on the Grey Mare Rock. Those were times of fear, when people strained their gaze seaward, dreading to learn what toll the sea might claim.

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The burly man with the beard, made burlier by his lifejacket, was Reverend Shegog, rector of Holmpatrick, a man who saw practical service to his community as an integral part of his vocation. My father, a child boarding with the nuns, looked askance at Reverend Shegog, because he was one of our separated brethren. In later years he admitted that the rector was indeed a mighty man, almost a giant in a child’s eyes. He would be pleased to see this image nowadays in bars and restaurants around the town. He would no doubt, raise a glass in honour of Reverend Shegog and indeed of the entire crew. Appropriate for a clergyman to become part of an icon.

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I became aware of the Lifeboat House sometime in the late forties. There was no lifeboat in it. I think there was turf stored there. It was a place of refuge in sudden summer showers, perhaps during a band recital in the newly developed park on the site of the ruined Coastguard station. One day there was a man painting murals. He painted freehand, covering the interior with Disney characters, Mickey Mouse, Goofy, the Seven Dwarfs, Snow White, Hollywood glamour and sparkling colour all over the walls. I was entranced. Not since Michelangelo put a few coats of paint on the Sistine Chapel, had anyone so totally transformed a plain barn of a building. Then came an ice cream counter with all the delights that a child’s heart could wish for. There were slot machines that disgorged endless streams of money, but only big people were allowed to use them. Our parents did not approve of slot machines, despite the wealth that flowed from them. There was pinball, with real pins and real steelers, not the etiolated shadow of pinball that children play on electronic devices nowadays. Table football  was played by young men with all the fervour and cheering associated with the real thing. Most wonderful of all was the jukebox, a marvel of automation and flowing chameleon lights. It was the most colour that I had ever seen. (You may remember the forties. It rained a lot.) It was a Wurlitzer. I thought that that meant it contained all the music in the Wurld.  My spelling needed attention. For a mere twelve-sided thrippenny bit you could command Doris Day, Jo Stafford or George Clooney’s auntie to pour out her feelings in song, the desires and longings of a generation yet to be labelled ‘teenagers.’ There was a song about a doggie in the window and a robin walkin’ to Missouri, but the less said about them the better. Woof woof. Sorry about that.

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The juke box, like all glamorous things, came from America. The music was practically all American, except for Ruby Murray and Bing Crosbie, who was Irish by popular acclaim.. They sang about other things besides mawkish love. I preferred the cowboy songs: Tex Ritter and High Noon, Slim Whitman whining about tumbleweeds and just about everything else; some other cowboy with a fear of being fenced in: let me wander over yonder, til I see the mountains rise. Guy Mitchell belted out a cautionary tale about a pawn shop on a corner in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and a very foolish man indeed. There was a recitation about shifting, whispering sands, a dead miner and the crafty Navajo. It was different. Tennessee Ernie Ford sang manly songs about fightin’ and trouble and diggin’ coal. One fist is iron; the other one’s steel. If the right one don’t getcha, then the left one will. Walk softly around Tennessee Ernie. I wanted to grow up and be tough like that but I didn’t want to have to listen to Nat King Cole groaning about falling in love and broken hearts. That stage came much later, but by then it was the whimpering Everly Brothers and their ilk. On balance, I preferred the ice cream. Let the big people pay for the music.

At that time, the top twenty hits were calculated on the sales of sheet music, not records. Sheet music! Then the market discovered  the buying power of teenagers. A succession of men with sufficient gravitas to ensure good behaviour, Charlie Grimes, Felix Murray and the ever cheerful Johnnie Murray, saw generation after generation of youngsters hang around the Pier Shop, as the building was renamed. It is important that young people have some place to hang around, some place to laugh, to strut on occasions, to talk and argue and learn a measure of tolerance, to gradually grow up. It is important also to be able to get in out of the rain and maybe offer a glass of orange juice to a girl you have feared to talk to, all summer long. Shaken, not stirred. The poet Yeats, was inspired to write his most famous poem, by a similar orange juice fountain, in a café on the Edgware Road. It was one of those glass containers with plastic oranges bobbing about. It made the sound of a trickling stream. I will arise and go now and go to Innisfree/ and a small cabin build there of clay and wattles made.  I was surprised that so lofty a  mortal as Yeats would frequent a café.   I was not surprised that a local wag applied for planning permission to Sligo County Council, for a small cabin of clay and wattles made, on an island in Lough Gill. He was refused. Anyway, Lough Gill has the most voracious midges this side of The Amazon rain forest. nevertheless Yeats caught in his poem, the longings of the human heart, for home and love and peace and of course, beans and honey, just as the Pier Shop/ Lifeboat House for a time, held our dreams and longings.

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Indomitable it stands against time and change. My children taught me how to play Western Gun and Pacman in there, the first, and my last, video games. Co-ordination of hand and eye and razor sharp reflexes. I lost. It is now a welcoming restaurant. We filled it recently with our children and grandchildren to celebrate our fiftieth wedding anniversary. They filled it with talk and laughter and agreeable noise. I know that Mickey Mouse and his friends are still there behind the wainscotting, a task for some future archaeologist to uncover and wonder at, as I did. I looked around at a building filled with love. It was better than Bill Haley. Better than Elvis, Lonnie Donegan, Hank Williams and Harry Belafonte. Better even than the great Fats Domino. Better than any juke box filled with endless music. Our parents would have approved. Even Reverend Shegog would have approved, to see the Lifeboat House so full of life..

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Diving at The Springboards. Shelley and Eddie Heron.

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I noticed a young copper beech in full leaf, beside the road at Balcunnin, yesterday evening. There was a wild, west wind blowing. The tree swayed and tossed. It seemed to flare as the wind caught the bronze leaves. It put me in mind of seaweed in a swirling current. I thought of Van Gogh, who painted the wind and poor Shelley, who looked down through the crystalline waters at Naples and saw…. ‘the oozy woods, that wear the sapless foliage of the ocean, know thy voice and suddenly grow grey with fear…and tremble and despoil themselves…Oh hear!’  He was talking to the west wind. He was a poet of course, so that’s all right. I learned that poem in school, like most people and often thought of it when approaching The Springboards bathing place. …’and saw in sleep, old palaces and towers…quivering within the wave’s intenser day…all overgrown with azure moss and flowers…’ It is a pity for Shelley that he lived before photography and scuba diving. I don’t think he was a swimmer, but he caught something of the fascination of the underwater world. At low tide you saw pillars and steps, all overgrown with weed. On a hot day, the weed sizzled in the sunlight. It was no doubt, fanciful to think of a sunken Roman villa or the remnants of a Greek temple, mourned by a melancholy poet, but we had to make the most of what we had.

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When you reached a certain level of proficiency, you were allowed go to The Springboards. When you got really good, you were allowed swim to The Girder, a metal structure, not unlike an oil rig, fifty yards out from the steps. When you got brave, you could dive off the high boards. There were boards at ground level and, for some years, three springboards on pillars. The height was scary enough, without springing even higher. My brother spoke severely to me. ‘You’re bending your knees before hitting the water. It looks bad. Do something about it.’ I was bringing shame on the family. Worse than consorting with loose women, frequenting dens of iniquity and smoking cheap, Spanish cigars, I was bending my knees, before hitting the water. I worked on it. Unfortunately, between the high board and the water, there was plenty of time to forget all good advice and revert to a tangle of limbs and an unseemly splash, or worse still, a belly flopper. Painful and moreover, embarrassing if there were any spectators. There were always spectators. They were more likely to applaud a belly flopper than a perfectly executed swallow dive. If there were girls around, their laughter was shot through with scorn. In the endless, subliminal quest for strong genes for their future offspring, a belly flopper, in their eyes, definitely scored nul points. Unless, of course, you had done it on purpose. ‘Did you see my bomb dive? I did that on purpose. Ha ha ha!’  Indeed.

I saw Eddie Heron diving off the high board at Blackrock baths. He towered above the gazing onlookers.  His speciality was the swan-dive. He flew, like a winged Victory. He entered the water like an arrow, with hardly a ripple. He moved like an otter under the surface, only to emerge again and climb to his lofty eyrie .’And with what motion moved the clouds!‘ The tower seemed to sway. Leni Riefenstahl caught such images, but the images in my memory need no editing.  We waited. He did a little experimental spring. Be careful up there!  He flew again and again, a jacknife, a pyke, a somersault, a swallow dive and never a belly flopper.  It looked easy. Just hold your nerve and don’t bend the knees. I read in the paper not so long ago, that Eddie’s house had been burgled and all his trophies and medals stolen. What sub-human degenerates would maim an old man in such a way, a man who raised the spirits of all who ever saw him fly?

The Cullen brothers were effortlessly, the best divers. We always stopped to watch. They took the best suntans, in the days when it was still legal to get a tan. You could resent lads like that, if they hadn’t been so amiable.  It might be thought that we were lazy sods, lying about in the sun all summer long. Not so. It was necessary to turn over every twenty minutes to get an even colour. Most of the time there was a sharp sea breeze and the best spots were taken. Rheumatism was a constant danger. Even hypothermia, although I don’t think the word had been invented at that time. There was Maurice White, with his bloody dogs and his water-polo ball. It’s no joke to have a red setter drying himself nearby after an invigorating swim. It was no joke to get a whack in the face from a polo ball, when Maurice explained the finer points of the back-flip. It’s not funny to have a dog swim after you when you are doing a Johnny Weismuller out to the girder and scrape all down your back. It’s humiliating to find that the blasted dog is a better swimmer. ‘Don’t worry. He won’t touch you.’  All dog owners say that.

There was a drift net not far from the girder. Don Cullen saw something flashing in the water. Like an osprey he dived from the top and swam to the net. He found a fish struggling in the mesh. I think it was a mackerel or perhaps, a sea-trout. With no thought for his own safety or that of his future progeny, he stuffed the fish into his togs and swam ashore. ”That’s me lunch,’ he declared in triumph. I envied him the fish but most of all, I envied him his dive. Leni would have been proud of him. Mae West would have had a double-entendre about being glad to see her.

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Those are gentlemen swimmers of pre-war vintage, in the long bathing costumes of a more modest age. Strict segregation of the sexes was observed until the mid nineteen fifties.  Barry Mason, who photographed everyone and everything in Skerries for a generation, asked ‘Why?’  Because bathing was always segregated. There are notices. Can’t you read?  Three of the twenty four hours are reserved for ladies. Enter at your peril. You may sit outside on the rocks and observe from afar. You may worship from afar, if you wish. ‘But why?’ asked Barry. ‘Why can I not go for a swim with my wife or my daughters, in our favourite bathing place?’  Eh, I don’t know. The notices were taken away. Elvis and Bill Haley arrived at the same time to assist  in the destruction of civilization, as we knew it and swimming was desegregated. Harry Belafonte sang about the banana boat and The Springboards became an island in the sun for everybody. The sky has not yet fallen in.

Pride, however, goeth before a fall. I went down for a swim with the son of some visiting friends. He was brainy and well spoken but inept at diving. I went nonchalantly out onto the high board, just to put him in his place. There was a wild, west wind blowing and fairly high waves. I dived. (One of the cooler lads used to say ‘dove.’) All right then, I dove. A wave caught me in mid flight and tweaked my spine. I heard the click. My companion helped me out. He was most solicitous (well spoken) and sympathetic. I haven’t doven (?) from any height greater than a foot since then. I have however, a trophy, Skerries Swimming Club. Boys Under 14  Twenty Five Yards Championship. Regatta 1953. This makes me ‘an award-winning writer’  like all the best people.  Ta dah..!  I am inordinately proud of it, even though it isn’t big enough to act as an egg-cup. I will kill any sub-human degenerate that tries to take it away.

Following a tragic diving accident on The Bull Wall, Dublin County Council took down all diving boards in the county. Poor Shelley drowned and was cremated with the timbers of his boat. There is a certain poetic harmony to the idea but nowadays he would need planning permission and a permit from the Environmental Protection Agency  and The Fisheries Board etc. etc..I went down early one morning to find the place strewn with carnations. A former swimmer had asked that her ashes be sprinkled in the waters.  I waited out of decency,for the next high tide to carry everything away.

May she rest in peace among the azure moss and flowers.

A bad neighbour, work-in-progress and a brush with Skiffle

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My good neighbour acquired a leylandii tree when he bought the house. It was a small, unprepossessing bush at first. He was in two minds about it for a few years. It became a bird colony. It gave privacy to both of us. We quite liked it. However, in a few years the thing became bigger than both of us, as the saying goes. It cast his garden into perpetual gloom. The grass died. It banished us from our garden by half past three, in high summer. Neighbours further up the hill, lost their view of the sea. It laid its malign fingers on our apple tree and our two beloved cherry trees. The lawn turned to a mucky wasteland under its shadow. It had become a mal voisin (A BAD NEIGHBOUR) like the mediaeval siege tower of the same name.

It has been said that if you want to subvert society, cause domestic strife and civil broils, set brother against brother and neighbour against neighbour—plant leylandii everywhere and we will be at each other’s throats in no time. I have no such story. Our good neighbours came to us and discussed chopping the thing down. We agreed with alacrity. Our son, experienced in the business, undertook to do the job with a chainsaw. He disappeared up into the canopy. He was higher than the houses. He took a pruning saw and a bushman saw. A disembodied voice called instructions to those below. He humbled the enemy, laid it low and sliced and diced it into firewood. We counted the rings. The damn thing was only twenty four years old.

Suddenly there was light. Our gardens recovered but the fruit trees were a lost cause. Spectacular fungi clothed the apple tree. It had to go. The cherry trees lingered for a year but they were beyond retrieval. The blackbirds, the ‘little wobbers’ as my grand daughter used to call them, no longer came to steal–and discard–the unripe cherries. They never heard of deferred gratification. The number of ripe cherries we got from the two trees over twenty years, must have run into double figures. The immediate beneficiary was a clump of orange lillies. They became a jungle. Drastic action was called for.

“I say! I say! I say! My dustbin is absolutely full of lillies.”

Margaret and I cut the cherry trees down. A strong wife with a long rope is a great asset at such a time. The same chainsaw man diced them up. We now had a light-filled corner with nothing but lillies. It became a project. It required a lot of hard work, a lot of black sacks and a few dustbins. I whistled as I worked. Lonnie Donegan came to mind. My old man wasn’t a dustman, nor did he wear cor-blimey trousers etc.

“How do you know they’re lillies?”

In fact he was more than tolerant of our various ventures, probably knowing that we would grow out of whatever phase was in vogue at the time. I got a guitar the year Elvis burst upon the music scene. Sex, drugs and rock’n roll, were not the motivation in those days. I would have settled for the fanatical adulation of young women. I got a lot of requests, mainly from my siblings, such as “Stop that bloody noise!” I abandoned my musical ambitions. Whatever ever became of that other chap, Elvis?

My brother and his friends formed a skiffle group, or jug-band. They practised in our kitchen There was a kazoo, an instrument that replicates the sound of a hundred wasps trying to sing in harmony. It doesn’t work. There was a washboard–very hard to get nowadays. Automatic machines and modern detergents are so much easier on the hands and incidentally on the ears. Somebody played a jug! My brother provided the pulsating rhythms of the brush and tea-chest: dum dum dum dup dup dip dip dip dup dup dum dum dum dum. Somebody sang in the appropriate adenoidal tones for skiffle. ‘My Old man’s a dustman…He wears a dustman’s ‘at..’ Practice makes perfect. My Old Man never objected. He read his paper in the sitting room and smoked his cigarettes. He drank his coffee, Kenya Coarse-ground, from Bewleys. He never punched anyone ‘up the froat.’ Occasionally he raised a quizzical eyebrow at some extravagant piece of virtuosity. They never become perfect. They stopped practising. The brush returned to its more mundane function. Tea chest are unavailable nowadays, anyway.

All abstruse musings as we work in the sunshine. We are nearly there. We have a bright corner seat, where we can sit, drink coffee, talk and probably foment other plans. The original plan was just to sit and drink coffee. As to Lonnie’s question about identifying lillies—

“Lily’s wearin’ ’em!”

Tah! dah!