Abstruse Mid-winter Thoughts.

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It would be poor courtesy indeed to stay in bed when visitors come from far away in wintertime. I have been watching them for some time, going about their business with outstretched necks and urgent, purposeful flapping of wings as they cast around for the best feeding grounds. They look out for one another and wait for those who lag behind. They converse in low, sonorous muttering. They keep watch.  I got out of bed. I hoped to see them against the mid-winter sunrise.  There were only two, far out to sea. I was too early. I was too late. The sun was coming up near Lynches’ Point. There was a curlew probing speculatively at the tide line. When you hear the curlew, I was told, it means rain. Not a peep out of him.

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Then they came, a raft of geese paddling in the shallows, waiting for the tide to drop, for the weedy stones to reveal themselves. It was like a blessing, a gift to warm a cold December morning. They have come from a land of almost interminable night and bitter cold, to over-winter with us, to mutter and complain like us and make the best of things.  We complain about the dark evenings and the short days, the terrible things that are happening in the world, the dismal news. We turn our collars up. We make soup and light the fire. We don’t know how lucky we are.

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(Photo courtesy of Fergus)

This is a world where children are dismembered on an industrial scale, by men devoted to some implacable god; where Syrian children starve in the snow because rational thought is punishable by death; where whole societies are devastated by disease and natural disasters; where the down-trodden Irish, ‘the Most Oppressed People…Ever’, take to the streets to protest against paying a few bob for clean drinking water. A sense of proportion? What do you think?

Sometimes, on the way to Malahide for music lessons, we see a sports field covered with prattling geese. They come in off the estuary at high tide, to rest and confer. At other times the field is occupied by children at play. The geese know how precarious  a thing it is to bring children into the world and literally launch them into independent life. Their chicks leap from vertiginous cliffs, trying to reach the safety of the water. They fall prey to the skua and the snuffling silver fox. They may be dashed on the rocks or snatched by lurking seals. Despite the witterings of the fatuous ‘Nature Poets’, it’s a cruel world.

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(Also courtesy of Fergus. Colour photography in a black and white world.)

The Guinness people show us a world of black and white, snow drifting down on the Custom House, Christmas revellers and bells ringing. The amiable man passing by, smiles benignly on the world. I like a black pint with a white head on it. We went to hear our grand daughters playing in a Suzuki concert in the Moyne Institute in Trinity College, on Saturday last. The building was endowed by Lady Grania, daughter of Lord Moyne, a member of the Guinness family. It is more than likely that you and your ancestors contributed a few bob to the cost and maintenance of the Moyne Institute. You may have strolled in My Lord Iveagh’s gardens or swum in the Iveagh Baths. You may remember The Lady Grania and The Lady Patricia  moored at Customs House Quay and the Guinness men trundling wooden barrels of stout over the cobble-stones to the sound of thunder.There was a hut beside Butt Bridge where breakfast was always sizzling. I was a mere student hurrying past to an early morning lecture. Don’t sell the sausages. Sell the sizzle. Advertising works.  What a thing it would be to work in Guinnesses and wear My Lord’s black livery! Now there are homeless people huddling under the elegant portico and a creepy famine memorial on the quay.

The concert began with an elegant soloist, a senior student. At each stage a younger group arrived and the seniors moved progressively up the double staircase, joining in the simpler pieces as they climbed, higher and higher, until the floor was occupied by tiny musicians with infinitesimal violins. They played together Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, seniors and beginners together, as it should be. I thought of all those who nurture the young, keep them safe and give them the gift of harmony. My mind wandered to the geese, navigating by the stars and launching their young from the cliff. I thought of the skua and the prowling silver fox. Hold your children a little tighter when you think of such things.

Dr. David Cabot, of Trinity College, tracked geese from Ireland to Greenland, by gps transmitter. He followed them on their mass migration, over the Hebrides, Orkney, Faroes, Iceland, to their summer breeding grounds. The pin-points on his screen stopped in Greenland, except for one. It moved slowly and mysteriously onwards, across the Davis Strait to the bleak island of Baffin. He investigated. The goose was dead. It lay in an Eskimo’s fridge-freezer. The transmitter continued to send a forlorn signal from its icy tomb.

I warned you of abstruse thoughts. Question 1: Who sold that fridge-freezer to the Eskimo? (I know. I know. I should say Inuit, but its an old idiom.) Question 2: Why is he/she not running the economy of this country?

Back Camera

Here’s a little fellow who got caught out by the cold, a lapwing. There was a time when they came in their thousands, their wings whiffling in the dusk as they alighted in Swarbriggs’ field. It was exciting to see the white underside of their black wings, glittering like foil,  as they descended from the gathering night. I can hear the piping as they called their name, one to another, pilibín pilibín. We tried to hunt them with catapults, but fortunately, with no success.

In five days, the world will teeter on its orbit and the sunrise will begin to inch back towards the north. Things will begin to look up again.

A new Year. We must hope for a better one.

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Rockabill Lighthouse. Abel Rock.

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A man at Speakers’ Corner told a sad story; “When I was a young lad goin’ to school in Dublin long ago.” he said, “I learned trigonometry. Do y’know what trigonometry is?”  I kept my head down. Of course I know what trigonometry is, but I have a mortal fear of street performers of any kind. Didn’t I give some of the best hours of my young life to Tan a over 2, Sines and Cosines, Logs and Antilogs? I even painted the Cosine page in my log tables red, to avoid a tendency to read the Cosine instead of the Sine. That could result in my space probe failing to rendezvous with the comet, Giotto, by several million miles and probing the Bog of Allen instead.  ‘It’s Tan a over 2. Stupid boy!’  I never quite cracked the language of mathematics. Napier filled a whole book with page after page of numbers and it became a best-seller. Pure genius.  ” It’s all about angles and triangles,” explained the man. “I learned how to measure the height of any tree or a lighthouse or a skyscraper. It was amazin’. I decided to get a job measurin’ lighthouses, but when I left school I found out that all the lighthouses in the world had already been measured. That cured me of ambition. I’ve never worked a day in me life since then”.

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As a child, I suspected that Rockabill was a ship. It has a chimney. It has a tender for the coal, just like a steam engine. It definitely moves, shunting up and down the horizon, depending on where you are standing. You need to keep your eye on it to see how it moves. Walk along the coastal path and it follows you, sometimes hiding behind the islands and then slipping out suddenly to surprise you with a new vista. I painted a picture of it and was roundly abused by a man who could see it when he was shaving every morning.  “Where’s the gap?” he challenged me. “There’s a gap between the two rocks.”  “Not where I was standing,” I replied lamely. “I was further to the south. Everything depends on your point of view.” He snorted derisively. “You’re wrong, you know,” he insisted. “There’s a gap.”  There is a gap.  A German U Boat sat up on that gap at low tide to effect repairs. It then went on to torpedo the mailboat Leinster  with great loss of life. My father missed that boat, because he went on the beer. Who says that beer is bad for your health?

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How could you do trigonometry anyway, with all those noisy neighbours? The rocks are covered by clouds of kittiwakes, terns and gulls, shags and cormorants. Look at your man showing off, the king of the castle. Little guillemots bobbed and dived on the calm surface of the water.  There is abundant guano, often deposited in elegant triangles, the apex pointing to the nest. The British War Office appointed the artillery branch of the army to begin the great Ordnance Survey of Ireland. Ordnance relies on mathematics for accuracy. They began at Poolbeg Lighthouse in Dublin Bay, fixing the Ordnance Datum (OD) at a low  spring tide and triangulated from that point, covering the whole island with a web of triangles. They then went on to anglicise all the place names, e.g.  Skeheenarinky. It sounds like gibberish. It was Sceachín an  Rinnce , the little thorn bush of the dancing—The Little People dancing  at midnight in the moonlight. Be wary of the Little People.  There are stories and myths in the old Irish place names, if you have the time and patience to tease them out. The Ordnance Survey nailed everything down. Now they use GPS and satellites to keep everyone in their sights. Even the OD has moved to Donegal. We have come up in the world.

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Alice took us around the rock in a gentle curve. The islands swam from one point to another. The birds screamed at our intrusion. Perhaps they knew that Mike was about to catch some of their fish. We spliced the main brace to christen Michael’s new boat. A porpoise rolled on the surface. He shrugged and went below. Porc pisces —sea pigs?  A gannet dived like white lightning. We noted a few brown jellyfish drifting languidly in the tide. Alison and Margaret took time out. Where else would you rather be?

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I looked out this morning to check on that gap. The Rockabill was gone. There was a sea mist. Maybe, of course, it had merely gone walkabout. There was a time when it warned us of fog. Waw wah, waw wah, like a sick cow. It was a comforting sound when you lay in bed at night. Someone was keeping watch. Then it changed to Woop woop, woop woop. It had become a destroyer, steaming out of harbour to hunt for U Boats. Now it is silent. There is no need for watchers on the tower or foghorns to talk to the ships. All is electronic and of course, infallible.Tara, Rockabill, Harbour  end 065

There is a groove on the garden wall where the lighthouse keepers rested their telescope.  They focussed on the white wall of Flower and MacDonald’s coal yard. I was talking to a lady about this one time, when suddenly, to my surprise, she went into a spasmodic dance, waving her arms about like a mantis. I thought it might be because of some hypnotic power that I might have over women—but no. “What was that all about?” I asked. “I was saying goodnight to my Daddy,” she said. “We used to talk by semaphore at the  the coal yard wall.”

How the image  in the lens, of his little girl with her flags, must have warmed his heart , during his lonely vigil on Rockabill.