Peeling Back the Years. Murtaghs’ Hill and the Haunted House.

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Sketch c.1949 courtesy of Leonard McGloughlin. 

I discovered only recently that there is a facility on Google Earth , a clock icon, that can roll back time. I decided to look at Murtaghs’ Hill in or about 1955, but sadly Google didn’t exist then. What kept them? Arthur C. Clarke foretold geostatic communication satellites in 1946. He forgot to patent the idea. It took another 16 years for Telstar to glide across the night sky, the first of a myriad of satellites to bind the world in  a web of voices and pictures. Clarke envisaged a time when nation would speak unto nation . Peace and understanding would spread throughout the world and indeed, the Universe. He suggested that communications would be revolutionised by reducing all phone charges to the local rate, irrespective of distance. All you would have to do is crank the handle and ask the operator to connect you  to Proxima Centauri or the other side of the galaxy..and hang the expense…4d or so.  He never anticipated Skype. I can never think of Telstar without hearing the tune……Jackie Farne and his Cordovox, an alien tune from interstellar space, ‘Big, Wide Space’ as my little grandson calls it. He is familiar with Skype and wockets that fly up to Big Wide Space. The Cordovox was an electronic instrument played with a stylus. Similar results could be achieved by inserting the stylus into your inner ear and scraping vigorously. World peace will have to wait a while longer.

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Google Earth  can go back as far as 2003, so this is what I got: 2003 and 2013. The hill is gone. Don’t look at me. It was definitely there the last time I walked that land. So was the ring fort. I’ll be honest. I was aware that it was gone. From the railway platform now you can see Ardgillan woods and white houses on The Black Hills. There was once a green hill, a graceful parabola, an esker that had strayed southwards as part of the freight of the last glacier. It was dappled with furze and fringed with a few gaunt scots pine. It had a haunted house. It had an ancient ring-fort to tease the imagination and a melancholy swamp to frighten the unwary. Who lived there down all the years, since the ice surrendered its plunder? Why was the house haunted?

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There was a comic strip in the evening paper: King, of the Mounties. The comma is important. He wasn’t the king of the Mounties. He was a sergeant. He wore the incredibly glamorous red coat, although we saw it only in black, grey and white. Our grandchildren think that we lived in black and white. In winter, King wore a fur hat with ear flaps. Try getting children to wear such a thing. Eminently practical. However, King always caught the bad guys, tracking them over the endless arctic wilderness, through impenetrable forests and down raging rivers interrupted by vertiginous cataracts. The bad guys were often renegade Indians or French-Canadian fur trappers  My older siblings had to read the speech bubbles for me. I used to wonder why anyone would steal another trapper’s furze. There was plenty of furze on Murtaghs’ Hill, enough for everyone. The bad guys had great terms of abuse. My French is limited but I remember ‘pig-dog’, a good one to be used in times of stress, when arguments about what King, of the Mounties shoulda’ done, got out of hand. That was every night. I never wanted to be a Mountie though. I think it was the hat. It’s not a proper cowboy hat at all… and he had a flap on his holster. More flaps. I still know where to find lots of furze. I have some old tennis racquets in the shed, in case a blizzard closes in. There is even a plastic snow-bullet toboggan in there too. Pig-dogs beware.

What has the British Empire ever done for us? Well, the Ordnance Survey was one thing. You can out-Google Google Earth by means of the Ordnance Survey maps. You can go to The Griffith Valuation of 1847-52 (Google it) and look at the first Ordnance Survey. You can read the names of the land-holders of every field. You can trace every stream and lane of your childhood and houses that are now mere ghostly shells, if any trace remains.  You can see the ghost of Murtaghs’ Hill and the ring-fort that once became a quarry, a foul smelling chemical dump, a rubbish tip and now an unprepossessing, swelling of the ground, ‘landscaped to ‘blend in with its surroundings.’

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Once upon a time we met an old woman wading in the swamp, collecting water cress. ‘Wather grass’, she called it. ‘Very good for you, but be sure to wash off the snails.’ God help her, she was a ruin in her own right, as if she had come out of the haunted house to find her dinner. She hadn’t a tooth in her head and always seemed to be astray in herself, but an amiable poor soul.  The wather grass hadn’t done her much good. Fashionable chefs will garnish your meal with wather grass but be sure to check for snails… unless of course, you have ordered snails. By the way, the swamp is now a corn field and perfectly dry underfoot… no geese or frogs or reed-warblers or snipe darting from the rushes and no wather grass.

There is definitely no gravelly hill. It was trucked away to build the Dublin suburb of Ballymun. I wonder where the ghosts live now.

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Seafood, Saints, Sinners and Pyke.

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Not a bad haul from a morning walk. The crab was a little bonus. The razor clam and sea urchin were empty, just decoration. Catching razors is a whole different kettle of fish, to mangle a phrase. Sea urchins were esteemed in Classical times, as a delicacy. Some people eat them raw.  Not me. Maybe I got that wrong. Maybe they were steamed. I apologised to the crab, but I took him all the same. At last I have found the place where the mussels are not covered in barnacles. There is a lot of work in removing barnacles. The cockles I took, to complete the song and because they squirted water at me. It is a sin to refuse the good things that nature provides.  I left 47,000,000 for you at the next low tide. It’s a rough estimate, give or take a bucketful. Skerries, I emphasise, is a Blue Flag beach.

I heard a man singing heresy once, long ago. She wheeled her wheelbarrow—From Wearmouth to Jarrow—Crying cockles and mussels—Alive, alive o——– Well, you know what happens to heretics.  Not a bad rhyme, all the same, although it would have been a hell of a push for Molly Malone, leaving her in no fit state for her other, more extra-curricular activities, if gossip is to be believed.  The Venerable Bede, Doctor of the Church, lived for much of his life in Jarrow. I’m sure he would have welcomed some fresh seafood to lighten the sparse monastic diet, whatever about Mollly’s other wares. But no. Molly was a Dubliner Isn’t there a statue of her in Dublin? If heresy were to take hold—and Heaven forfend—she would be trundling her little cart from Sandscale to Barrow, or anywhere else that happened to rhyme. The Venerable Bede himself, would denounce such heresy. He has been stuck in the mud at ‘Venerable’ for a thousand years. Isn’t it time he was upgraded to ‘Saint’?  His life’s course took him from Wearmouth as far as Jarrow where he completed his great work. Perhaps he has been venerated for too long. Give him the big prize.

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I went another time, to catch crabs. I did reasonably well. I had intended to photograph all the crab ‘courses’ to complete a directory for those who come after me and be venerated for all time, like the good monk…..but it rained. I had started out in summer clothes but autumn took a little lash at my presumption. (Presumption is a sin)  I will attach my recipe as an appendix to the directory.

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When Doc in Cannery Row waded in the tidal pools of Monterey, he mused about life. Long before Cousteau, he made marine life fascinating. The ebb and flow of the tide never fail to throw up something interesting. A good friend goes to Joe May’s bar on the harbour, to conduct tidal studies. He is quite an expert. The storms have eroded the sand and marine clay undisturbed, possibly, since the Ice age. The pristine new pools are populated at low tide, by shrimp and little dabs. You can detect the fish only by the slight disturbance of the sand. Wonderful camouflage. Do you remember Professor Magnus Pyke on childrens’ television.?  He was an expert. He waved his arms extravagantly to make his point. He explained why beaches are perpetually replenished and how stones float ashore. I know this because we had a houseful of children and saw a lot of childrens’ television. I still hate Scooby Doo. The monster was always Mr. Dettweiler, the villainous campground manager, (insert name and occupation as desired) in a costume far too big for him. It was the same story every time. The kids insisted on watching it even though they despised it too. It postponed homework. It has taken forty years  to get that off my chest. I digress. Professor Magnus Pyke showed how stones are colonised by seaweed and how, with the rising tide, they are lifted and borne by the currents and waves, to a beach near you. I notice too that the mussel, a by-word and a bivalve for stability, the original stick-in-the mud, can levitate in the same way, with his cargo of fellow-travelling barnacles.

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Saint Patrick, lifted by missionary zeal, got around a lot more than Venerable Bede. He settled for a time on his island. The monastery did well until the Vikings arrived. The monks eventually moved ashore and probably enjoyed a better diet at Holmpatrick. (A little plug there for Fingal’s splendid market gardening industry.)

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We went on the Viking Splash with some children. The driver was very entertaining. As we came up from College Green into Nassau Street, he indicated the statue of Molly Malone, showing her wares to the public. He suggested discreetly, out of deference to young listeners, that she sold other commodities besides shellfish. ‘I can’t say what she sold but, that shop on your right might give yiz a clue.’  The shop sells high quality door furniture. The sign reads Knobs and Knockers. Work it out for yourself. Since Classical times, shellfish have been regarded as the food of Venus. Work that one out also.

An old Skerries man ventured as far as London on his holidays. He didn’t think much of it. He couldn’t understand the language at all, at all. ‘Frank,’ he said to the barman, on his return, ‘did you ever hear tell of venerable diseases?’  ‘Venerable what?’  ‘Diseases. Every time I went to wash me hands I saw these warnings about venerable diseases.’  Maybe Bede was wise to stay in his monastery.

On a lighter note, the mussels were delicious.