Battle of the Somme. July to November 1916


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A letter writer to The Times wrote in 1916, “the dum dum bullet has no place in civilised warfare..” Quite right too. Another complained about the neglect of marksmanship and rifle skills. Close-quarter fighting with the bayonet was extolled as the ultimate test of manliness. So there you have it. Bagpipes, military bands and footballs. The Good Old Days. No mention there of car bombs, proxy or otherwise, explosive suicide vests, poison gas, flame throwers, napalm, defoliants, nuclear bombs, depleted uranium, murder of hostages, ethnic cleansing, biological warfare or famine. Civilised warfare has gone to the dogs.

I heard an interview with a British mercenary at the outbreak of the Balkan wars. He was ‘in the service’ of Croatia. “This is the only place in the world where I can shoot people legally,” he declared with some pride. He need never be short of career opportunities. He may, by now, have taken part in some squalid victory parade. He may even have been awarded some medals.


Light the touch-paper and retire. The beauty of gunpowder is that you can strike from afar. Even a low born peasant with a firearm can strike down a noble knight, without facing him in combat.  The Chinese claim the credit for devising the first explosives, hundreds of years before the idea took root in Europe. It would have been fine if they had confined the invention to fireworks and bangers to celebrate the new year and other festive occasions. However, the periodic insanity that we call war, made it impossible to resist raining fire from above on enemy armies, cities and anyone within range. Great civilisations celebrate peace and prosperity, the arts, poetry, architecture and science and then, like Samson, they pull the whole damn structure down on their own heads. War sentiment comes to the boil and bursts out, to general flag waving and cheering crowds. The history, as they say, is written by the winners. They are the ones in the right.


Civilised warfare. Only the horse seems to realise how mad it is. Look at his eye.

A Franciscan friar, Berchtold Schwarz, a follower of the gentle Saint Francis of Assisi, devised the formula for the black powder that revolutionised warfare. A mediaeval woodcut shows him at work, with The Devil whispering in his ear. There was no need for Lucifer to trouble himself. The fascination is there deep down in the human psyche, the desire for ultimate power over others. It’s in every political fanatic,  every psychopath, jealous lover, fearful householder waking in the dark at some sudden noise or master strategist marshaling his armies for an assault. Children play Cowboys and Indians. The cowboys are the good guys, or at least, they used to be when we played it up in the ballast pit. Keep the faith and keep your powder dry. The good guys are always quicker on the draw.

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When Gulliver explained the wonders of artillery to the king of the giants, outlining the benefits that could flow from battering down the walls of the strongest fortresses and dismembering the inhabitants cowering within, the king was furious. He called Gulliver a despicable insect and warned him never to mention the subject again. Gulliver was puzzled that so enlightened a king could not see the manifold benefits of gunpowder. He missed a good opportunity for some civilised victories.


In 1914 the great civilisations of Europe went to war. Historians, a century later, are still arguing as to why. After a few weeks of advance and retreat, the reasons became irrelevant. Old ways were thrown aside. Barbarism and callous disregard for life became mandatory. Civil life was dislodged. Agriculture became impossible in the war zones. Starvation followed quickly. Men learned to live like rats in holes in the ground. They learned to live with rats in holes in the ground. Entire economies were deflected to the service of the war. The first naval battle of the war took place off the coast of Chile on the other side of the world, as the warring powers sought to secure access to the nitrates vital for the manufacture of explosives. The guano birds were making their contribution to The Great War. 2008_0808daffs0232

It is said that one definition of madness is to repeat the same action while expecting a different outcome. After two years of carnage the generals hit upon a master plan. On July 1st, in fine summer weather, young men climbed out of their trenches at dawn and advanced at walking pace, across a few hundred yards of No-Man’s -Land, in the face of German machine-gun fire. The images still haunt our consciousness. The machine-gun is a wonderful invention, ‘a weapon to cut the enemy’s throat at a thousand yards.’ It is beautiful in its simplicity, a weapon that practically fires itself. No marksmanship required, its field of fire overlapping with the neighbouring  machine guns, all firing at knee height to achieve maximum effect. There was no great break-through on the Somme. Five months later the tacticians and strategists were still sending young men over the top all along the Somme battlefield. The machine guns were still hammering away. The memorials make dismal reading. This five-month battle will be remembered in many moving ceremonies on July 1st when the myths of The Somme will be recalled, with the resolve that it must never be repeated. There will, no doubt, be gun salutes, parades and marches. No, nothing like that could ever happen again. We have much better explosives nowadays.


My father was there as a young boy, carried along by the prevailing enthusiasm. I think of him often, almost a child, the same age as my eldest grandchild. He lay all day in a soaking shell crater, feeling colder and colder as his life blood leached into the flinty soil of Beaumont Hamel. Some German prisoners, pressed into service as stretcher bearers, carried him back to the trenches. He laughed in later years, recalling the German officer ‘with his bloody monocle!’ ordering his men about even on top of the parapet, as sporadic bullets whizzed around. ‘I reached out with my good leg and pushed him into the trench, pompous sod!’ The men lost no time in following him.  It snowed that evening on the trenches, on the skeletal trees,  on the craters and on the wounded,  on the dead and on the rubble of what had once been Beaumont Hamel. The Battle of The Somme petered out.  The generals went back to their maps. Better luck next time. More committed use of the bayonet perhaps.


On returning from France in 1919 he went, not surprisingly into the bar at Euston Station to wet his whistle, as he invariably said.  He was hailed by a doctor named Healy of the R.A.M.C. a member of a notable Skerries family. They had not seen each other since infant school with the nuns in Skerries. “Ah Tom,” called his old classmate across the crowded bar. “Did you have a good war?”  I suppose the answer is ‘Yes’ insofar as he survived, unlike the millions who didn’t.  No thanks however to the ingenious Chinese or to the good friar Berchtold Schwarz.

The Mists of Time. The focal point.


When I first went to school, some years ago, we wrote with chalk, on slate boards. The slate was our tablet, computer, calculator, i phone. There were lines scratched on one side to assist with writing and numbers. The other side was for drawing. The slates were distributed for certain lessons and gathered up afterwards. They made a satisfying clatter on the desks and a more satisfying clatter when a slate collector dropped a pile of them on the floor. I was quite good at drawing a white disc, starting with a dot and spiralling outwards and outwards. You blew the excess chalk onto your fellow students when the teacher was looking elsewhere. It made them sneeze. It made you sneeze. We drew houses: window, door,window downstairs. Window, window upstairs. A curving path up to the door. A chimney…teetering precariously on the roof.  Andy Radley showed me how to put a chimney straddling the ridge. It was my first introduction to perspective. There had to be smoke, lots of it curling up into the sky. I should say welkin but I didn’t know the word at the time. Apparently smoke or the absence of smoke in your drawing, is an indicator of personality.  On calm evenings, smoke and fog began to gather in the low fields. Every household made a contribution. It made for wonderful winter sunsets. Cotman, a notable English artist, attributed his love of watercolour to smog. Turner made it into something glorious.


In the early days of our state, enlightened people stipulated that children should enjoy music, nature studies, science and physical education as well as the three Rs. It was a noble aspiration, building on the ideals of the early educators of the previous century. I take some pride in the fact that my mother formed the first orchestra in a Preparatory Training College for future teachers. She never ceased to take pride in her pupils and their achievements. She was also good at lighting a fire: ‘Get me the paper and sticks and fetch some coal and I’ll light the fire.’ No trouble at all. She struggled with wet turf and coal shortages during the forties, making a Turneresque contribution to the twilight hours.The Romans called the hearth focus, the centre of family life.  Everyone gravitates to a fire. It’s a primitive thing, keeping fear of the darkness and wild beasts away. It keeps body and soul together in the long, dark nights after Samhain. It is the indispensable metaphor for love and passion. Human warmth. Stretch out your hands and feet to the fire, but beware of chilblains. Like the writing slates, chilblains have been consigned to the past. Children sit in heated classrooms and work with computers. My grandson’s teacher, in Senior Infants, says; ‘Hocus pocus. Now let’s focus.’ It works every time. Magic words and not a slate in sight.

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They meant well, those early idealists, wanting only the best for the children of the new state, but their aspirations were cramped by lack of funds and an increasingly narrow interpretation of what education should be. By the time I got to school, most of the ‘extras’ had given place to a concentration on the ‘core subjects’, English, Irish, sums and religion. We did, however, have painting. Nobody believes me when I tell them that we chewed the ends of (used)matchsticks to make paint brushes. After a serious outbreak of arson in Dublin, Mick Carron informed me that they caught the two fellows who burned down Dockrells. ‘Who were they?’ I should have known better than to ask. ‘Maguire and Paterson.’ Even the dead matchsticks could make a haimes of a picture by sticking through the wet paper. Might as well use it to light the fire..eventually. I painted the pictures in the catechism book and worried about getting into trouble for blasphemy. Lots of haloes and clouds. I’m not too keen on the fires of Hell though. Seems a bit extreme for an all merciful and loving God. The teacher and the visiting priest were however, quite complimentary. No Hellfire yet.

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Standing on The Mill Hill, I recall the blanketing smog (temperature inversion, if I remember correctly)  and the high buildings that stood out like arctic nunataks. I learned that word later, mountains that stick out from the ice sheet. Nun attacks? Nah. The Holy Faith Convent, long gone, loomed out of the smog. So did the churches and belfries, the Munster and Leinster Bank and the Martello tower. The manager, ‘Tiny’ Callaghan was himself, exceptionally tall. I often saw him returning from the fields on a misty evening, after a day’s  shooting. I’d swear there was snow on his hat. I didn’t comment. He was armed and presumably dangerous. A lone gunman.

Absent smog,,, building 063 Absent smog,,, building 060 Absent smog,,, building 065 

Farmers used to burn the straw after harvest. It made for an apocalyptic sight, a country in flames. They burned hedge cuttings. Gardeners burned leaves. We all burned turf and smoky coal. All forbidden now. The smog swirled into the hospital corridors, following the throngs of asthma, bronchitis and flu sufferers in winter. The air is cleaner now. Bright orange lichens grow on roofs and walls. There is a nationwide ban on smoky coal. Bord na Móna will no longer extract peat for power generation. Cigarettes have gone up in price again. Houses are built without chimneys. Surely someone will invent a ‘vaping’ device for the old chimneys so that houses can look more, well, homely. There are fake-flame electric fires. You can get a video of a fire to play on your television. If he lived today, Turner would be out of a job. So would Dr. Jekyll and his evil alter ego.  Jack the Ripper would be spotted immediately if he attempted to slink about the streets of Whitechapel. I suppose we could import some smog from China, just for nostalgia’s sake. They seem to have rather a lot of the stuff.

As for nun attacks, one of the hazards of going for a walk with the Old Man was the fact that he was related to quite a few of the Holy Faith nuns. The walked in threes. He made strenuous efforts to avoid meeting them and the long, solicitous conversations that followed. He was educated by the nuns from the age of five. He spoke of how they inked in little bathing togs on the Joshua Reynolds cherubs on the cover of the hymn books. Reynold must have been a blasphemer too. I remember him leaping in desperation through a gap in a hedge on the Mill Lane. He straddled the barbed wire. The Old man, not Sir Joshua.  ‘Oh good Jesus! (Blasphemy) The bloody nuns.’ Foremost among them was his first cousin, Sister Alphonsus, a kindly but formidable woman. ‘Come back here, Tom Ryan.’ Nabbed again and trying to pretend that he had merely turned aside to light a cigarette. ‘Bloody Hell!’  With a decent bit of smog he might have got clean away, across Mick Moles’s’ field, fading into the gloom like Mr. Hyde.


I see they caught the two fellows who popularised  bronchial disorders in Dublin— Kapp and Peterson. I think that gag requires a bit of work.

Cigareets and Whiskey and Wild, Wild Women. Oekumenism. Saint Patrick’s Church, Skerries.

goat, st patrick's church, belfry 002‘They’ll drive you crazy. They’ll drive you insane.’

I was eight years old at the time. There was bad news. Canon O Gorman , the parish priest had died. He was highly regarded. It was he who undertook the replacement of the old church in Church Street, with a new church that stretched from Church Street right through to Strand Street, thereby opening up two new shortcuts. That was done before I was around. Monnie Barrett, a gentle old lady, who stood behind the bar in Joe May’s, told me about the old church. It was so small, that the girls kneeling at the Communion rail, used to tickle the altar boys’ toes. The altar boys were in their bare feet. Tickling was probably a mortal sin in those sepia days.

I don’t remember Canon O Gorman  being alive, but I have a vivid recollection of him being dead. On balance though, the news was good. Because he was the manager of the National School, (The Nash. I have been told that Nash should be spelt with a G.)  that premises closed as a mark of respect. Because he was the parish priest, an extra day was added. A successor was nominated, Father Patrick McAuliffe. Father McAuliffe died before he even reached Skerries. Two more days off!  It was like winning the Irish Hospitals Sweepstake. We were on a roll. Bring ’em on.

My older brothers decided that we should go to Canon O Gorman’s wake. His what? His wake, you eejit. He was ‘reposing’ at the parochial house, the house now occupied by the Holy Faith Sisters. They confided to me that at wakes they give you whiskey and cigarettes. It’s an old Irish custom. Possibly the Wran Boys would turn up with an accordion. There was an outside chance of a brawl with shillelaghs and wigs on the green. It was too good to miss. I needed a drink and a smoke after all the excitement of parish priests dropping like flies all over the place.That was the refreshments catered for. Now for the wild, wild women.

He was laid out in his vestments, looking like a graven image on a tomb. His rosary beads were entwined around his fingers. He held a chalice, a chalice I believe, given to the parish in the 1770s, when the penal laws against Catholics were beginning to fade away. There is an awesome sense of continuity in that. There was an atmosphere of solemnity in the room. Some old women were saying the Rosary. We were included. I kept an eye on the door, wondering when there would be a break for drinks and a smoke. Did they ask us if we had a mouth on us at all? They did not. Were there any shennanigans? Divil a bit. We stayed for a few decades of the Rosary and departed quietly, overawed by the whole affair. He made a lasting impression. He was the first dead person I had ever met.  I looked at my older brothers with a tinge of contempt after that, spoofers, a pair of frauds. It was the driest wake I had ever attended in all my eight years. Okay, I’ll admit it. It was the only one.

Canon O Gorman oversaw the building of a fine, if somewhat austere church, dedicated to Saint Patrick, a good Skerries man. He commissioned a sculpture from Albert Power, a leading sculptor of the day. See Albert’s Pikeman in Wexford. The Pikeman expresses a vital and rebellious spirit, a man prepared to receive cavalry.  Saint Patrick, on our church, is more serene, but he caused a row nonetheless. Albert carved, at the saint’s feet, the ram caught in the bush and sacrificed by Abraham. Some said it was the deer that longeth for fountains of pure water. I don’t know why, but some parishioners, prominent benefactors of the church, took it to be Saint Patrick’s goat, notoriously eaten by the Skerries people, fifteen hundred years previously. A millennium and a half is but a moment in terms of an Irish grudge or an Irish jibe.  Who took the soup in famine times, God help us? Who came over the Hoar Rock Hill in the wake of Cromwell’s army, ‘ playin’ penny whistles?’  There were delegations and complaints. Albert was obliged to come back and remove the goat. All was peace again, until The Boys’ Brigade spent a week or two camping in Skerries.  Our separated brethren have no time for graven images. They whitened Saint Patrick’s beard with chalk and wrote ‘Santa Claus’ in the space where the goat/deer/ram should have been.  We weren’t into the old ecumenism in the 1940s.

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. We lived in Church Street. Canon O Gorman enlisted my brother to keep guard over the new rose bushes in the church grounds. I’m not suggesting that my brother was an enemy of the Church, but it was good psychology all the same. My brother was a lively lad,  well capable of riding his trike or kicking a football, through a flower bed.   It was better to have him in the tent etc. etc. He had a strong sense of justice. So strong was his sense of justice that he used to send me out to play on the pavement, so that Ned Geary would hit me. I was like the tethered goat in a tiger hunt. He hated Ned Geary. He would emerge like an avenging fury to wreak a terrible vengeance on Ned Geary. He maintains that I distort the story by simplifying it.  It was much more nuanced than that.  I was too young to remember the facts, but there is nothing nuanced about a clout in the ear. The roses did well, by the way.

I went to early morning Mass in Milverton Chapel. This entailed a journey up Toker Hill. It entailed fasting.  I usually fainted during the Mass and sometimes had to go to a later Mass in Skerries, because I was unconscious during the Consecration. My brothers were canon lawyers too. Technically I had not fulfilled my Sunday duty. Technically I had not been at Mass at all. I was outside on the step, with the world spinning around me and archangels dancing furiously on the head of a pin. I had gone to Mass, granted, but I had not been at Mass. I could hear the murmur of Mass and the little jingling bell, but damnation and hellfire were staring me in the face. The void was opening under my feet and demons were cackling below, in the bottomless pit. I heard the priest saying: ‘Your prayers are requested for the repose of the souls of His Holiness, Pope Pius the Twelfth and Mary Anne Brien.’  Sceptre and crown must tumble down and in the dust be equal made, with the poor crooked scythe and spade. Mary Anne Brien lived in a thatched cottage near the chapel. She cleaned the chapel and looked after the altar flowers, she and her Sister, Kate. Some male relative loved topiary. He had a row of white-thorn bushes, shaped like hens, cockerels, urns and globes. Mary Anne kept pigs. It was part of the ritual of a family walk to climb up on the whitewashed wall and have a ‘dekko’ at the pigs. Part of the pleasure of early Mass in Milverton, leaving aside the theological disputes, was free-wheeling down past Mary Anne’s cottage and whizzing under the railway bridge, to a breakfast of bacon and eggs, with Olhausens’ sausages and black and white pudding. Food for the soul. Of course, that meant breaking the fast and no Communion at the later Mass. The canon lawyers were very strict on that too. They had a hard line on the risks of swallowing toothpaste. If a saint had a silver plate in his skull, would that be a first or second class relic? That would be an ecumenical matter. Mary Anne made a great contribution to the special quality of Sunday morning, as indeed, did the pigs. You should have seen her sister, Kate, shimmying up to Communion. ( I made that up.)

There was a serious outbreak of ecumenism in the 1960s. Everyone reached out to everyone else. Centuries-old rifts could be healed by dialogue and parity of esteem.  There was a big conference in Kilkenny. The Catholic bishop sat up on the platform. The Church of Ireland bishop sat down in the audience. A Jesuit explained that the word is not ‘Ecumenism’. Only muck-savages and heretics said ‘Ecumenism.’ The correct term is from the Greek, ‘Oekumenism.’  So there.  It is a good strategy to wrong-foot those with whom you wish to ‘dialogue.”  (That’s not a verb.) Before grappling them to your heart, it is no harm to remind them that they are wrong, but that you are prepared to forgive them. In this new spirit of love and reconciliation, a bus-load of ladies from the Shankill Road, came south to see what ‘they’ were really like in the Republic. They were on television. They paused at a roadside shrine in Monaghan. They looked at the graven image of the Virgin. ‘Put a few sticks of dynamite under that there,’ suggested one of the ladies. ‘That would be a start.’ The old oekumenism was gathering pace.goat, st patrick's church, belfry 006

The belfry of the old church survived.It’s a limestone pinnacle beside a granite church. Milverton limestone, no doubt. It had a magnificent roof, like something you might see in Bavaria or Transylvania. If I were a bat, I would have liked  to hang around the old belfry. Peter Halpin, the sacristan, let us ring the bell on occasions. It’s not as easy as you might think. You might find yourself being carried aloft on the rope. It’s all about timing. I tried it a year or two ago in Doneraile, during a festival. I haven’t improved. The bell went wild, spreading alarm and confusion all over the countryside. Peasants were hiding their gold in mattresses.  Refugees were loading up their carts and setting off for the coast. Old men reached for pikes, long hidden in the thatch. An experienced campanologist stepped in and took charge of the beast. He calmed it with a few practised tugs on the rope. He counted the changes. All was harmony again. The pikes went back into the thatch.goat, st patrick's church, belfry 008

As proof of how we have advanced, it is necessary to despise all that we were. The Church and Irish society have gone through massive convulsions. Sometimes we are like those writhing creatures in the Book of Kells, twisting back on ourselves and gnawing our own entrails. ‘Remorse’ translates also as ‘back-biting.’ Chairman Mao knew the importance of expunging the past. They have expunged him too.  A prominent Irish writer wrote about Good Friday. He always had a family barbecue in the garden and a football match, in order to shock the silly Catholics, as they went past on their way to church. What larks, eh! I looked forward with great anticipation, to his follow-up piece about a similar celebration of enlightenment in Mecca, during the Hadj. Two million devout Hadjis would love a chance to stop by on their way, for a beer and a few pork ribs. Soccer is taking off too, in the Arabian peninsula. The World Cup in Qatar will be an ideal opportunity to let the Muslims see the error of their ways. Olhausens might be interested in sponsoring him.  Watch this space for an update.

Fifty years after the opening of the church, a goat was put back under Saint Patrick’s statue. It is bronze, the end product of research and clay and the fascinating process of ‘lost wax.’  The inscription is from Peter in the house of Cornelius, referring to how his property and freedom were restored to him: Everything that was ours was restored to us, for the sake of God and of our invaluable friends.’ When the foundry men came to put up the plaque, they pulled their van up close to the wall. A grumpy old-Skerries man approached, complaining that the church was festooned like a dance-hall. (‘old-Skerries man’  is not the same as  ‘old Skerries man.’  Nuances again.) We said nothing about the goat. He went away. It was appropriate that Albert Power’s nephew, Henry should be the person to unveil it. It was originally patinated in green, but some zealous person has cleaned off the patination, to make it shine like a new penny. The patination will grow back over the next few centuries. It may have taken fifteen hundred years to give back the goat, but it must be said that Skerries people  pay their debts….eventually.goat, st patrick's church, belfry 004

Margaret said to me: ‘You were only eight years old. Would you have drunk the whiskey, if it had been offered?’

A purely hypothetical question but… would have been churlish to refuse. It would have been a grave discourtesy to the memory of a decent man.