Slip-sliding away

Shenick, Dunamaise, Thurles, cake 030Shenick, Dunamaise, Thurles, cake 036

A century ago, this was a cottage. It had a slated roof, a garden and a picket fence. Children played on the strand in summertime. I have seen the pictures… happy holiday-makers returning to Skerries, to the place where their grandfather, Reverend Shegog, was the Minister in the Church of Ireland. You may have seen his photograph, a tall, bearded man in his cork lifejacket, supervising the launching of the lifeboat at the harbour. You may have heard the story of his son, a doctor, who died in the Great War.  A week after his death, a telegram arrived to his quarters, announcing the birth of a child, a child who never knew his father. Old stories, that hang in barely remembered shreds, like the weeds on the crumbling cliff. Perhaps my recollection of the stories, is crumbling too. They echo, like the distant calls of children on a strand, or the cries of the nesting fulmars. Even the fulmars must give some thought to the changes taking place around them.

Shenick, Dunamaise, Thurles, cake 032

Fulmarus glacialis is the official name. The fulmars have lived here ever since the last Ice Age clothed the rock in boulder clay and fine gravel, to make an island. They live on fish, shellfish and small crustaceans, a gourmet diet. They can’t go hungry on Shennick Island.The Dutch name for fulmar is mallemuk meaning foolish gull. The Dutch are mistaken. The fulmars nest together in apparent amity. They stay together all winter, sheltering from the storms. Their food supply is immediately below them. They glide down to forage and soar back up to their ledges, masters of their element. They warn intruders off, with raucous cries.  Gah, Gah, Gah.

Shenick, Dunamaise, Thurles, cake 013Shenick, Dunamaise, Thurles, cake 048

The storms and high tides rend the island. They undermine the cliff. They spill the boulders and gravel onto the strand and sweep it all away. We watch as  the profile changes from year to year. We are concerned. We see the traces of human effort falling away. We experience regret for what is lost. Men stayed overnight in the cottage, to steal a march on the tide, when they went out to collect the woar. The winkle-pickers of today would be glad of four walls and a roof. They come from Latvia. They tell me that they don’t feel the cold. They work at night, with miners’ lamps, moving, like Will o’ the Wisps, on the dark foreshore.

lots of miscellaneous cashel etcetc 060Shenick, Dunamaise, Thurles, cake 025Shenick, Dunamaise, Thurles, cake 026

You can read the story of the Ice Age in the layers, the black marl under the sand of the beach, the rough clay and boulders torn from the bedrock; the fine gravel, deposited grain by grain, in the beds of sub-glacial streams. The sea will take it all, the gravel and the jagged stones, sift and sort it and send it somewhere else, to make beaches of fine sand and drifts of gleaming pebbles. Nothing is lost; everything is changed. The granite pillar above the cottage proclaims ownership of the island, His Majesty’s War Office, ‘in Good King George’s glorious day’. The martello tower belonged to His Majesty. He prepared for war. The gulls and the pigeons own it now.  But for how long more?

For the present, the crabs and winkles welcome the shelter of the rocks and stones. The cockles burrow in the mud and sand. The mussels open and close with the tide. The mussel beds suffered greatly in the recent storms, but already the tiny spat is clothing the rocks, like a fine fur. Give them four years and they will make a tasty meal. People will come to dig for lugworms and probe for razor fish. The tide will ebb and flow, undermining and sifting. Gravity will bear down inexorably. The cottage wall will crack asunder. The tower will creep closer and closer to the edge. You and I won’t be around to see it fall.

The fulmars will move back a foot or two, with every slump and subsidence. They will soar on the updraughts and build their nests in the sun. They will dine together in some style. They will not send their children to war. Foolish gulls? I don’t think so.

Falcarragh waves Jan 2014 Watchers 042


crescent moon 004

It was worth getting out of bed to see the sliver of moon over the sea. Venus was nearby. It was even better that I caught a glimpse of the space station too, a speck of light in the immensity of the void. There are people up there, also enjoying the dawn. They enjoy it numerous times in the twenty four hour cycle. The spacecraft got away, before I could find my camera. That was the cardinal rule of photography….’Don’t move!  Now you’ve ruined it.’  Children with speed streaks and bird wings instead of arms. Faces blurred, as memory blurs. The space station moved, but the moon gave me a few minutes’ grace. I thought of George Clooney’s film, Up in the Air, billed as a comedy, but bleak and lonely in its conclusions, a winking speck of light in the night sky, to signify his passing. George came to mind again, in Gravity, suave as a coffee advertisement, schmoozing his way through a spaceship crisis. Planets and asteroids swam past in the blackness. Did he get the girl or did they just drift apart, like so many couples? I don’t know. Coffee should keep you awake, but I dozed off, lulled by the magnificent special FX. (We say FX in movieland instead of effects.  Effects, Effects! Write it out twenty times, boy.) I once fancied his Auntie Rosemary. Is it ok to fancy someone’s auntie?

When asteroids threaten the Earth and all the wonderful variety of life that flourishes on it, there is no need to worry. Hollywood springs into action. Hardy men and some good looking women, in figure hugging space suits, heavenly bodies, are dispatched to intercept them and blast them to smithereens, or deflect them away from our gravitational pull. Nations come together in the hour of need. We realise that we all share a common humanity. We gaze skywards at the approaching apocalypse. We watch, via space telescopes, the tumbling, cratered, mass of rock,  whizzing out of deep space, heading directly for Washington, New York, Los Angeles, London.  Nothing to worry about. It’s special FX.  Nevertheless, I’m glad that I don’t live in any of those places. Monsters, Martians, Aliens, Plagues, Giant Ants, Killer Bees, always head for places with photogenic landmarks. Big Ben…bowoing, bowoing. Washington Monument…photo opportunity for the President. Even the Sun went on the blink once and had to be re-ignited by thermonuclear devices delivered by intrepid astronauts. A damn close-run thing.

I saw an asteroid once, many years ago, before Sputnik bleeped its way into our consciousness; before Goonhilly Downs bounced television pictures into space and down again, on the other side of the Atlantic; before Yuri Gagarin astonished the world. The asteroid came at me in slow motion.  (Slo-mo, I understand, in Movieland.) No simulation there. It tumbled and grew in my vision, a sinister black mass, bigger and bigger with every nano-second. I had plenty of time to take evasive action but I had no time to decide. It was thrown by a classmate after a frank exchange of views, on the way home from school. I had time to marvel at his skill. I had time to fear that it might hit one of the petrol pumps in the Caltex garage. There were glass valves on the pumps, where you could see the petrol surging through. If it hit the glass, a Niagara of petrol would gush forth and flow down the hill, towards the school. We would all be incinerated. The school would be incinerated. There would be trouble then. I hoped it wouldn’t hit the glass. It didn’t. It was a brilliant shot. It got me right on the temple. I saw stars and supernovae, the rings of Saturn, Jupiter’s moons. I slid into a black hole.I heard alien voices from beyond our galaxy.

“He’s gone up through Ruigrok’s field. We can catch him at the mill.”

My companions seemed to think that this was a good idea. I went along with them…on wibbly-wobbly legs and right enough, we homed in on the culprit, the miscreant, at the mill. A fight was inevitable. Honour must be satisfied. I had no wish to fight. I actually liked the chap. I already had a lump on my head, quite enough to be going on with, at the time. I was bleeding spectacularly.Right was undoubtedly on my side, but my knees were letting me down. He wore glasses, so I couldn’t punch him in the face. There were rules, in those days…before Bruce Lee made kicking and hitting below the belt, acceptable in polite circles. Ah, so!

Three black-robed figures hove into sight. Time lords from a passing starship. Eh, no. They were three nuns taking their daily constitutional, my father’s cousin among them. Divine intervention.

“Stop that at once, you boys!” We had only reached the shoulder pushing stage. “Go home now or I will speak to your parents.” That was enough. In the nick of time. You don’t argue with time lords.

We parted with many backward glares and muttered threats, but nothing ever came of it. That was sixty three years ago, if I am not mistaken. I had a few drinks with him in later years. We sorted out the world and probably the universe, but the asteroid attack was forgotten. I recall that he was critical of De Gaulle. ‘Je vous ai compris,my arse.’ I met him the other day. He looks a bit shook. I wonder if I could take him…Ah, never mind.

February sunrise 2014 003

In the time it took to sort out the camera, all these blurred memories came into sharp focus. Photographs on the wide screen, the Imax, the Vista Vision, the Todd A O, of memory. The space station was gone. Venus and the cuticle of new moon had yielded to the greater light, Helios, Sol, The Sun. He’s looking well. No need for re-ignition. Another day.