To See a World in a Grain of Sand /and Eternity in an Hour

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Ailsa Craig Granite

When we were boys we collected birds’ eggs. It’s illegal now, as I understand. It’s even illegal to possess them, without some sort of permit. My criminal past is all behind me. The evidence has been destroyed by time, by swaps, malevolent rivals, faulty cardboard boxes crushed under junk and a gradual feeling that the eggs were probably better off if left in the nests to hatch. ‘Nest’ would be overstating things with regard to most sea birds. The birds rely on camouflage. The eggs may be in a depression scraped in the beach or under the lee of a rock. In some cases the eggs are laid on vertiginous rocky ledges and shaped in such a way as to prevent them rolling off. Like Mr. Wobbly Man, the weight is at one end.

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There are wonderful maps on Lambay Island showing the nesting grounds of the various birds and the times at which they laid. This was to facilitate commercial exploitation of a valuable source of protein, until the advent of large-scale poultry farming. How do you like your eggs in the morning? Preferably with no little feathery scaldy inside.

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The luminous midsummer night gave way to a bleak and blustery dawn. The wind picked up and Ailsa Craig peeped above the horizon. A pyramid rising from the sea; a hanging garden viewed from afar; ‘Paddy’s Milestone,’ a landmark for homesick labourers leaving Ireland to earn a few pounds in the potato fields of Scotland. It’s the plug of an ancient volcano from the time when Scotland’s Highlands tore away from the Appalachians and the Atlantic Ocean swelled up to fill the void. It took some time. It is still happening. ‘Preposterous time’ William Goldsmith calls it, a length of time too vast for our puny minds to comprehend. Time enough for living things to evolve, to swim in the oceans and rivers, to creep upon the Earth and take to the air on flimsy wings, colonising islands and cliffs and laying their eggs in relative safety.

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The sun emerged. The  rock took on some colour. It crept closer. We could see the white of gannet colonies on the slopes. The Solan Goose. A delicacy. Robby Burns’s father was said to be in the solan goose trade. I would never have dared, had it been possible, to try to collect a gannet’s egg. It has angry eyes. It is armed with a fearsome weapon. It takes no prisoners. Someone suggested a dip off the jetty. The early morning cold and a vast brown jellyfish, knocked that idea on the head. The chef prepared porridge with honey, to put some volcanic warmth into his torpid crew. It worked. We went ashore. That’s probably illegal, to judge by all the cautionary notices. The island is for sale for a paltry £1,500,000. Would the Marquess of Ailsa take a cheque? I doubt it. The birds live rent free on what is, and always has been, their territory. It is now officially a bird sanctuary. There goes the egg and solan goose trade. The smugglers gave up centuries ago and migrated to Rush, in County Dublin. The granite quarry is abandoned. The railway could still run if enough muscle power could be made available. (That was powerful porridge.)

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Modernity has rendered all the industry of Ailsa Craig obsolete. There are living quarters abandoned while still undergoing renovation. There is no need for coal or oil. Engine rooms are filled with rusty metal. The fog horns have fallen silent, their windpipes and lungs decayed and shattered. Modern navigational devices, guided from space, can see through fog and darkness. There is a Marie Celeste air about everything: old newspapers and books musty with damp; broken windows; lath-and -plaster hanging from walls and ceilings; tattered and battered furniture; roof-trees giving way under the weight of time and neglect. Only the lighthouse, automated, with  pristine solar panels, abides. There is no shortage of stones.

The Scots invented the sport of curling, just as they invented golf. Golf has taken over the world. It has become a vast industry, while curling remains a minority sport, an amalgam of bowls and housework. For golf you need an array of specialised equipment. For curling you need some ice, a polished stone and an accomplice with a sweeping brush. It has become an Olympic sport. It has a mesmeric, balletic quality about it. Even the sweeping becomes dramatic. The best stones come from Ailsa Craig. The granite, blue-hone granite, is fine-grained and takes a high polish. A curling stone is a piece of sculpture in its own right. Intriguingly, Ailsa Craig granite crops up on the North Strand in Skerries, several hundred miles to the south, carried by the gyre of the Irish Sea tides. The stones are polished almost as smooth as the curling stones by their long and grinding journey. They lie, speckled like birds’ eggs on the shelving strand, where Vikings once grounded their keels.

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When the keel begins to converse with the stones on the bottom, it is time to leave. Time to pack up memories and impressions of this melancholy but beautiful place and hand it back to the stewardship of rabbits and teeming flocks of seabirds. We headed northwards to Troon and the teeming hordes of golf pilgrims. I took a little pebble with me; probably illegal. It’s about three billion years old, give or take a few million. I like old things.

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I left plenty behind.

Until morale improves. Golf and the Wages of Sin. The Crying Room.

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I love this inscription on the Floraville path of memories: The beatings will continue until morale improves. It’s for your own good. Spare the rod etc. On Monday morning, after the childrens’ sodality, the schoolmaster beat the boys who had not attended church from three o’clock to four, the previous day. No excuse was accepted. ‘Where were you yesterday?’ ‘Sick, sir.’ ‘Not good enough. Sín amach do lámh.’ Think of the courage of a small boy stretching out his hand for the cane. ‘Caddying, sir.’  ‘Caddying! Caddying!’ This was a ‘reserved sin’. To endanger one’s immortal soul for a few pieces of silver from a good natured golfer on Sunday afternoon, smacked of the treachery of Judas. ‘ How much did you get? What did you do with it?’  ‘Gev it up, sir.’ ‘Not good enough. Sín amach do lámh’.  The child had contributed his few shillings to the household budget, no small consideration in the hungry Forties. One boy admitted that he had bought noranges. Nobody laughed. ‘Sín amach do lámh.’ Noranges, in the lean years after the war! Bloody luxury! The boy will be hung. ‘Now stand up the boys who were up in the gallery.’ This was , for some reason, a particularly offensive offence. I don’t know what depravity went on up in the gallery. There is an old music-hall song, ‘Miss Jenny Lind, With the Entire Company and This Time , Principally YOUR—SELVES’: The boy/girl (Delete as appropriate) I love is up in the gallery. Up in the gallery… The church is no place for that sort of thing. Down with that sort of thing etc.. Sín amach do lámh.

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Margaret and I  sat at the back of a crowded church yesterday. We were in the chidrens’ room, sometimes called The Crying Room. It was Mike’s First Communion Day. The children looked very smart in their new outfits. They were happy.They sang a song about thanking God ‘for making me me.’ Songs of Innocence.  There was another one that sounded a bit like: Ob-la-di Ob-la-dah life goes on brah, la la how life goes on.. Some small children in the room, broke off from their kick boxing, to dance together. The parents smiled indulgently. A granny with a walking -stick tried to restore order. Let’s hear it for grannies. My mind wandered. I remembered sodality. Sodales, dining companions, boon companions, members of a secret society. No we weren’t. There was no fine dining on Sunday afternoons in the church. There were hymns in Latin: Jenny Tory, Jenny Tokway, louse et jubilatio… I liked the sound of Latin, although I wondered who Jenny was and where the louse came into it.. Somebody up in the gallery, played the organ. My older brothers took me to my first sodality. ‘Then the priest comes out with some yoke and lights a fire in it. The church fills up with this lovely smell’. I loved the drifting smoke and the lovely smell. I imagined that my prayers rose up, like the smoke in the afternoon light, to wisp about the throne of God.

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Those windows haven’t been opened in years. No waft of fresh air has come in there for half a century. The spiders are secure in their tenancy. I thought of the countless numbers of good people who have given their time to the church. Their contributions built it. It was thronged every Sunday, as it was for yesterday’s Mass.  Nowadays it is mostly a church for children and old people. I went to an evening funeral. By the time the crowd had finished sympathising with the bereaved family, it was time for the visiting mission priest to address the mens’ retreat. I stayed on. A mind, just like a window, should be opened occasionally. He spoke about lust and the sins of the flesh. I looked around. I was the youngest in the church. The other customers were propped up on sticks. Down with all that carry-on, we agreed.

I felt sorry for Colin Powell when he was instructed to address the U.N. on the matter of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. It was obvious that he didn’t believe his own words. Body language. He showed a spy camera video of a large truck manoeuvring in a circle. This was to put the fear of God into the members of the U.N. Be careful around large trucks. The invasion went ahead anyway. Iraq was destroyed. A more frightening enemy, Isis/Is/Isol came into being. To Isis, we are all infidels. A Christian church, filled with children on Holy Communion Day, would be a plum target. Very dark thoughts in the Crying Room on such a happy day. By the way, Tony Blair became the Peace Envoy to the Middle East.  For crying out loud! He resigned recently to concentrate on making a few bob for himself. I felt sorry also for decent churchmen who were obliged to repeat the ‘party line’ on the referendum on Marriage Equality for gay people. Body language again.

The light comes through the mottled glass and makes the alcove glow. It’s a granite building. The mica glitters in the sunlight. We came out to see the people laughing, taking photographs and greeting one another. I saw one or two grandaddies who were there on the day I made my First Communion. If only I could recapture some of that innocence.   The news was that the Yes had been carried in the referendum. Ireland had not disgraced itself yet again. I felt proud that a sense of fairness had lifted the dark and cruel shadows of the past from fellow citizens who had suffered too long.  We went to Mike’s birthday party. There was a bouncy castle, as decreed by the Third Vatican Council—-well, it will be. Things change. We were charmed to see our children and their children enjoying a family day together. The other news is that Mike made a few bob. I could well have gone caddying in the golf club and made a few for myself, on such a fine day, but I don’t know a niblick from a five iron. Tips would have been thin on the ground.

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We are living in a better Ireland today. I spotted this sign on the way home. A bank open on a Saturday! For mortgage appointments! A few bob available. No grovelling required. (I made that bit up.)

In a couple of years they have built a home sweet home/With a couple of kids running in the yard/Of Desmond and Molly Brown…./Ob-la-di ob-la-da life goes on…yeah..la-la-la-la life goes on…

Indeed it does. The beatings have been suspended. Let’s hear it for the Beatles.