Meet the Corvids and of course, The Fokkers.

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As I was walking all alone

I heard twa corbies makin’ a moan

That ane unto that ither said

Where sall we gan tae dine the day?

With apologies to that prolific  author, Anon, my recollection is inaccurate as is my spelling. This is from a Border Ballad learnt in school. The Border Ballads tell of a time of constant and brutal warfare in the transitional territories between England and Scotland. The dilemma still perplexes fashionable diners. Where shall we go to dine today? The second crow had a good suggestion.

In behind yon oul fail dyke

I wot there lies a new-slain knight

And naebody kens that he lies there,

But his hawk and his hound

And his lady fair.

There follows a justification and an invoice, a bill of fare. The hound has gone to the hunting; the hawk to fetch the wildfowl home and the lady has taken another mate….’so we can mak our dinner swate.’  That’s life. We move on. Get over it. Adapt. Recycle. ‘You sit on his white breast bane and I’ll pick out his bonny blue e’en.’  The crows are the great recyclers; the raven, bird of ill omen; the rook, master of the gale, in his  swaying, tree-top dwelling; the jackdaw, that snapper-up of unconsidered trifles; the cliff-dwelling chough and the sinister scaul crow, connoisseur of carrion, who has lately begun to visit our garden. Easy pickings among sparrows and starlings. I remember how we believed that there was a bounty on scaul crows, five shillings. They had  a reputation for attacking lambs. They steal the wool and the eyes. They are probably a protected species nowadays. We make our dinner sweet from the poor lambs. Its a harsh world, as Anon would say.

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‘All to one side,’ said Brother Arnold, ‘like the town of Fermoy.’  I worked there in later years. The town of Fermoy has a mighty bridge, spanning the spectacular River Blackwater.

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Brother Arnold was talking about fractions, integers, decimal points, LCDs HCFs and always, mental arithmetic.  Coal cost £3-6s-8d per ton. How much for 1cwt?  A man runs 440 yards in 1 minute. How long would it take him to run 1 mile?  It should take him 4 minutes, but in reality, he will be knackered at that pace, by the time he reaches 1320 yards. I did that calculation in my head.  ‘You’d do it while you were puttin’ on your boots.’  No big deal.  He divided the sheep from the goats on the basis of mental arithmetic. He had a portable blackboard with numbered squares. Last thing in the afternoon, he gave each one of us a work-out, pointing rapidly to one square after another. You would be knackered too,  after four minutes.

I could never see anything one sided about the town of Fermoy, but in fairness, I was no mathematician. I swam in the Blackwater, opposite what is now Michael Flatley’s house. I swam underwater and heard the river rushing by and the millions upon millions of pebbles rolling in the shallows. I heard the constant thunder of the weir, by day and by night and marvelled at the countless salmon leaping up the weir. (Rainman was standing beside me. ‘47,362,’ he said, a true mathematician.) There is a documented account of the unique war between the crows in the trees on the Pyke Road and those downriver near Carrigabrick Viaduct.. The war went on for weeks, with spectacular aerial combat over the river. Perhaps they were auditioning for The Blue Max,  filmed in 1966 in the same skies. It was not a one sided war. The Blackwater looks beautiful in the film. The biplanes dived under the viaduct, again and again and even clipped the little castle on the cliff. It was magnificent, but it was not war. The combatants were rival German air aces—a bit one sided. They were vying for the favours of Ursula Andress, the general’s generous wife, she of the prehensile bath towel. (It was 1966 after all).  It’s an old story. Like the lady in the Border Ballad,  she found another mate. Get over it.

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This is, apparently, Anton Fokker, builder of wonderful and beautiful flying machines. He is flying Santos Dumont’s monoplane, in 1909.  Would you fight a war in one of these? ‘That lonely impulse of delight…. drove to this tumult in the clouds?’  The crows would do better. They had the last word on war.

‘Wi’ a lock of his gowden hair

We”ll theek our nest, when it grows bare.’

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A crow’s-eye view of the whole business.

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Visitors to Skerries (1) Woar mongers.

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There is a story in one of the sagas, concerning a Viking king and his shipwright. The great new  ship was finished. The king gave a feast in his hall, to celebrate. When he brought his guests outside to admire his ship, he found that somebody had cut notches of varying depths all along the top planks, destroying the beauty of the vessel. He was furious and threatened terrible vengeance on the culprit. The shipwright stepped forward stating that he had done it himself. The king demanded an explanation.

“I was not satisfied with the line,” said the shipwright. “It is good, but not perfect. When I have planed it down to the level of the notches, it will be perfect.”

The king was doubtful but he gave him the time and a stay of execution.  The shipwright set to work with adze and plane, under the watchful eye of his king. When he was finished the line was sublime, a thing of beauty. The king smiled, acknowledging the art of the shipwright. The longship was ready to bring rapine and terror to the coasts and estuaries of Europe and cross the seas to far away Iceland, Greenland and North America. The longship was graceful, sinuous, built to flex with the waves, a dragon ship in every way. A terrible beauty, to use a well-worn phrase.

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Another saga tells how a fleet from Iceland, sailing down by Faroe and Orkney, arrived at the Isle of Man. The crews discussed an impending war between Sitric, King of Dublin and a great war-chief from the south, Brian Boru. Brian’s reputation as a warrior and leader, swayed many of them to throw in their lot with him. The prospects of pay and loot were better with Brian. There is a tradition that many of the Viking fleet that came to take part in the subsequent battle of Clontarf, grounded their keels at Skerries. It is probable that they landed at the Hoar Rock, where there is deep water right up to the shore, at high tide and safe ground at low tide.

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That was a thousand years ago, this year. Imagine the longships gliding to shore, one after another. You can see the men lowering their sails, shipping their oars, letting their vessels surge forward, until they come to rest, with a crunch, on the shelving strand. They would have said ‘strand’ not ‘beach.’  The battle did not result in the expulsion of the Vikings from Ireland. They had been here for two centuries. They had built the first real towns. Their genes persist in the Irish. They accommodated themselves to the new order, if semi-anarchy can be called a new order. Their family names survive: Grimes, Seaver, Mac Lochlainn in its many forms, the son of the Viking. They named what they saw: Water-fjord, Lamb-ey, Skar-eys, Vik(inge)low,Ireland’s-ey. In Greenland they named a fjord ‘Loud shouting’. Can’t you hear their voices echoing back from the cliffs and from the glaciers? In New England—-‘Wonder-Strands.’ In some Irish cities, there is an Oxmantown, an area allocated to the Ostmen, the easterners, after the political changes brought about by Brian’s victory at Clontarf. Brian was not there to see it. His killer, Brodir was pursued for days and weeks, until he was found and killed on Corrin Hill, beside Fermoy.  It is the hill with the tall stone cross at the summit. Brodir was caught on the north side of the hill, a place of accursed memory, where the Sun never shines.

Their cousins appeared in Ireland a century and a half after the Battle of Clontarf, the Norsemen of Normandy. The reverberations of that invasion are still with us, as are their castles and their genes.

There is an old account from The Hebrides, of how the people, Vikings, gave a barrel of ale to the sea every year, in return for a plentiful supply of fish and woar. Until a generation ago, the farmers of Fingal drew cartloads of woar from the island and from the strands, after the autumn gales. There was a ‘woar war’ between the farmers of Skerries and Rush. It had to do with payment to the landlord for every cartload. The Rush men encroached on Skerries strand, without paying the charge. Maybe they were right. The Vikings would have sorted it all out, including the landlord, in jig time. Nowadays, the fertiliser comes in plastic sacks and woar is used to wrap sushi and make cosmetics.

Eric the Red was banished from Iceland, after a dispute over some wooden benches. He lent them to a neighbour for a wedding, as you do. The neighbour refused to give them back. Erik took an axe to him, as you might. There are no real trees in Iceland. Timber is precious. He took his family to Greenland. Leif Ericsson sailed to Dublin to get a cargo of  Yuletide ale for his father. Christmas ale; my father referred to it always as ‘refreshments.’ It is just possible that, on the way back, Eric and his crew sampled some of the refreshments——–because they missed Greenland and found North America. (Italian Americans vehemently dispute this.) They also found endless supplies of timber, a suitable Christmas gift for his father. (We know, of course, that Saint Brendan, the intrepid Kerryman, got there centuries before any of them. America should, by rights, belong to ‘The Kingdom’.)

The ‘sea roads’ joined  the Viking world like a spider web. Skerries is  a dewdrop on a filament of that great web. Kipling caught it well:

‘What is woman, that you forsake her

And the hearth fire and the home acre,

To go with the old, grey, widow-maker?

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Doesn’t any large vessel, appearing over the horizon, carry that element of beauty and menace? Be not alarmed. It’s one of ours.

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