The Cross. Agincourt 6oo. October 25th 2015

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It would be remiss not to comment on the 6ooth anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt (25th of October 1415). If I were to neglect the opportunity I would have to wait another century to get a similarly significant date. Because of its place in literature, this battle took on an importance not accorded to other English victories of that dismal war. ‘Gentlemen in England now abed…..will think themselves accursed they were not here to share this day with us…  It’s stirring stuff, the template of martial valour, no matter where you come from.  And then a hero comes along….according to an ad on television. It could be an ad for pizza or mobile phones or, as in this case, for a video war game for nerds. The knight wears golden armour and rides an armoured steed, a classic hero. A hero leads and inspires. Sometimes he achieves the almost impossible, over-riding considerations of right and wrong, self preservation and most of all, common sense…Once more into the breach, dear friends…….for Harry, England and Saint George. King Henry carries the Cross of Saint George, the flag of England, secure in the knowledge that he has been chosen by God. His men wear the broad red cross on their coats. God and the saints supported this raid. No doubt  the French called on God to assist their efforts also, as do most armies in time of war. There are no atheists in foxholes.

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Eleven centuries before Agincourt, Constantine’s soldiers inscribed the cross on their shields, following a vision in the sky… In this sign you will conquer.  He conquered and the cross became the most powerful symbol in European history. As part of his new dispensation, sovereignty over all islands was granted to the Pope. This had implications for Ireland in later years. Everywhere you look in Ireland you will see crosses. There are Celtic, Coptic, Greek, Maltese, Lorraine, Saint Brigid’s, Russian and many other variations on what was originally a Roman device for torture and execution. The ‘tree’ on which the convict was killed, became a symbol of triumph.

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It was the symbol of the Crusades, a symbol that still inflames enmity in Muslim societies. You see it in the national flags of many nations. The Red Cross organisation uses the reverse of the Swiss flag as its symbol. In some countries it shares its principles with The Red Crescent organisation, although the humanitarian impulse is the same. There has been an tendency in societies influenced by the Christian heritage, to put crosses on mountain tops  and in prominent places. In more recent years there has been a push to remove such symbols in the name of secularism and parity of esteem. It comes across as an attempt to erode the past, to blot out the things that gave western civilization, for all its faults, much of its identity. The Taliban,when they destroyed old statues, did not do it in the name of parity of esteem and tolerance.

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It was customary after the annual Blessing of the Boats, for the crews to bring all comers on a trip around the bay. It was an adventure for small children to embark on a fishing boat for a free trip. One fisherman commented to me that he couldn’t understand why the blessing had to be done annually. “It’s not like anti-foulin’. It should only have to be done the once’t.” The blessing held anyway, as the gravely overloaded boats returned safely every time. The late Jimmy Duff took it upon himself to erect a tall cross on Saint Patrick’s Island for the Holy Year 1950. He loaded it onto a trawler and we small boys went aboard for the ride. Unfortunately we sat on the cross as it lay on the deck. “Get off! Get off! Show some respect. Good Christ! Good Christ! Get ashore at once.” He muttered some less than pious remarks under his breath, about young people and their lack of respect. We were sinners, it appeared. We went ashore smartly. The cross stood tall on the island for some years. The owner of the island frequently railed against Jimmy’s impertinence in not asking permission. “He should be effin crucified on it,” he was inclined to remark to anyone who would listen. I don’t know what became of it. It was gone before the Hippies arrived in an attempt to settle on the island in the late 1960s. Maybe an easterly gale knocked it down. I don’t think the Hippies would have survived there either.

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The cross on Holmpatrick Church was originally  Celtic, with a circle in the centre. When it was replaced, during repairs to the steeple, the story goes (Apocryphal of course, after so many years,)a contribution was made by a Catholic  publican and his customers to pay for ‘a Catholic cross on a Protestant church.’ It was said in jest, but maybe he hit on what the cross should stand for, good neighbourliness and a good landmark. Kevin Duff did the work, carrying the stones from the quarry on his bicycle and lifting them into place by block and tackle. Except for the bicycle, he worked in the tradition of the master masons of the soaring mediaeval cathedrals.  The cross has outlived Jimmy’s wooden one on the island by a generation or two.

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The relentless rain and frost erode the stone crosses, washing away the depictions of the Christian story, just as the modern world erodes the imprint of the Christian story. My daughter’s friend went into a jeweler’s shop in London to buy a cross and chain as a present. The assistant was most helpful.  She had a wide selection. “Do you want one wiv’ a little man on it?”  Where do you go from there?

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What goes around comes around. Winds of Change.

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Don Quijote saw windmills as giants, with disastrous results. For most of my life, the windmill wore only one or two feathers, hanging down, in a louche, kind of Kiowa style. Not for him the full war- bonnet of eagle feathers, tacking in the wind. He was a battered old warrior, veteran of many battles, but still, he stood defiantly on his hill, waiting for his time to come again. Saint Colmcille, our Irish Nostradamus, predicted that the end of the world would come when there is a windmill in the middle of Skerries. Who in their right mind, would build a windmill down in the middle of the town? Isn’t there a grand big hill up there with plenty of wind? It’s even called Mill Hill, for God’s sake.  But..

Prophets delight in leading us astray. Oracles and Sybils talk in riddles. ‘But I thought you meant….’ Macbeth’s witches gave him copper-fastened guarantees. They all came true, but not as he expected. ‘Security is mankind’s chiefest enemy.’ It’s a bit like the law of unintended consequences. The North Slobs in Wexford (no relation) were reclaimed for farmland. All very good. But…Wexford harbour was deprived of the twice daily tidal rush of water from this great penstock. The harbour silted up. Post-war Britain built high-rise housing and dismembered old urban communities in the process. Many of these developments stand empty, awaiting the wrecker’s ball. I saw somewhere a suggestion for colonies, built exclusively for I.T. people, rookeries of genius, on artificial islands. It will end in tiers, mark ‘ee my words.

A landscape, especially that surrounding a small town, is a palimpsest, a manuscript worked and scraped and re-worked. New boundaries and roads emerge. The fields gradually fill with buildings. New populations arrive. Children lay claim to ‘our street’ and ‘our road’. We keep a romantic attachment to the old image of rural and small town life. But… it was often cold and damp. Poverty may look romantic in old sepia photographs., but who would really want to go back?

There was a man in Skerries who applied for a new house, when the County Council built fine, solid houses along The Cabra, just beyond the Mill Pond. He was unsuccessful. He received the standard letter of regret, topped and tailed in Irish: A chara….. application unsuccessful at this time… when funds become available…. assure you etc… Mise le Meas…..name undecipherable.  He was not reassured or consoled. He took to showing the letter to anyone who would listen.  ‘Lemass,’ he snorted, ‘I caddied for that oul’ huer up in the Golf and he can’t even get me a council house.’  Maybe his indignation set some gears in motion, because he got his house in phase two.

The bad winter of 1947 awoke memories of Black Forty Seven, the worst year of the famine. I was too young to pick up on those nuances. 1947 was the year of tobogganing down   Derhams’ hill, where Hillside Estate now stands. It became Saint Moritz or Chamonix for weeks and weeks. The hill was steeper then. It seemed to a child’s eye, that the entire population of the town forgot their woes, in order to go sliding down the hill. Office workers, coming off the evening trains, threw caution to the wind, even in their business suits, to stop off for a few goes. I was struck by the spectacle at night when the few street lights illuminated the slopes.  I was also struck by a group of lads on a ladder, as they came hurtling downwards. I knew they would hit me. I was paralysed by indecision. I can recall the blow on the shins and flying through the air. I can recall my brothers’ solicitude; ‘You stupid eejit. Why didn’t you get out of the way?’ A good question. A young man picked me up and dusted the snow off me. There were no broken bones. There were bonfires on that hill when he became a priest. He then became a bishop in Africa, where he probably got no chance to go  tobogganing. By the time he retired to Skerries, the hill was covered in houses.

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There was a pit in the side of that hill, from which earth was taken, a century and a half ago, to build a mound for Holmpatrick Church to build  it above the flood plain. The pit filled with water. I learned to swim there in 1953, on another snowy day when our toboggan went further than expected. I was on the front. The first swimming lesson should not involve an overcoat and rubber boots, but I made it to the other side. I felt quite proud of myself, if a little chilly. I was in Holmpatrick Church last night and felt proud again, as my grandaughter and her youth orchestra filled the building with wonderful music

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It’s not a big mound, but it does the job, when the Mill Stream goes walkabout and escapes onto its flood plain. The old marshy Mill Pond is gone, (our pond, as it was,) but we have gained in the transaction, with two new ponds.

I once set a group of students to draw a map of the town on the school yard. The squares were already there. All we needed was the paint. Students from the various new estates corrected me. ‘No, Sir. You don’t know our estate. The road goes that way.’ Then they set to work, laughing about adventures in their secret places and who lives where, and where they played football and the boy from their road who spent Christmas in America and emerged onto their road a week later on his new bike and said: ‘Hey, Dudes, check the wheels,’ and ..and…. These were fields when I knew them. I watched and learned. I gradually began to realise that there is a windmill in the middle of Skerries. The gears are grinding again. Skerries has flowed out from its nucleus to fill the areas around the hill. Dum, dum, dum. Like a Kiowa in a John Wayne movie, that old Indian on the hill is looking down on all of us. He has his full war-bonnet on again. Head for the hills.