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?

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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.

Visitors to Skerries (1) Woar mongers.

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There is a story in one of the sagas, concerning a Viking king and his shipwright. The great new  ship was finished. The king gave a feast in his hall, to celebrate. When he brought his guests outside to admire his ship, he found that somebody had cut notches of varying depths all along the top planks, destroying the beauty of the vessel. He was furious and threatened terrible vengeance on the culprit. The shipwright stepped forward stating that he had done it himself. The king demanded an explanation.

“I was not satisfied with the line,” said the shipwright. “It is good, but not perfect. When I have planed it down to the level of the notches, it will be perfect.”

The king was doubtful but he gave him the time and a stay of execution.  The shipwright set to work with adze and plane, under the watchful eye of his king. When he was finished the line was sublime, a thing of beauty. The king smiled, acknowledging the art of the shipwright. The longship was ready to bring rapine and terror to the coasts and estuaries of Europe and cross the seas to far away Iceland, Greenland and North America. The longship was graceful, sinuous, built to flex with the waves, a dragon ship in every way. A terrible beauty, to use a well-worn phrase.

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Another saga tells how a fleet from Iceland, sailing down by Faroe and Orkney, arrived at the Isle of Man. The crews discussed an impending war between Sitric, King of Dublin and a great war-chief from the south, Brian Boru. Brian’s reputation as a warrior and leader, swayed many of them to throw in their lot with him. The prospects of pay and loot were better with Brian. There is a tradition that many of the Viking fleet that came to take part in the subsequent battle of Clontarf, grounded their keels at Skerries. It is probable that they landed at the Hoar Rock, where there is deep water right up to the shore, at high tide and safe ground at low tide.

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That was a thousand years ago, this year. Imagine the longships gliding to shore, one after another. You can see the men lowering their sails, shipping their oars, letting their vessels surge forward, until they come to rest, with a crunch, on the shelving strand. They would have said ‘strand’ not ‘beach.’  The battle did not result in the expulsion of the Vikings from Ireland. They had been here for two centuries. They had built the first real towns. Their genes persist in the Irish. They accommodated themselves to the new order, if semi-anarchy can be called a new order. Their family names survive: Grimes, Seaver, Mac Lochlainn in its many forms, the son of the Viking. They named what they saw: Water-fjord, Lamb-ey, Skar-eys, Vik(inge)low,Ireland’s-ey. In Greenland they named a fjord ‘Loud shouting’. Can’t you hear their voices echoing back from the cliffs and from the glaciers? In New England—-‘Wonder-Strands.’ In some Irish cities, there is an Oxmantown, an area allocated to the Ostmen, the easterners, after the political changes brought about by Brian’s victory at Clontarf. Brian was not there to see it. His killer, Brodir was pursued for days and weeks, until he was found and killed on Corrin Hill, beside Fermoy.  It is the hill with the tall stone cross at the summit. Brodir was caught on the north side of the hill, a place of accursed memory, where the Sun never shines.

Their cousins appeared in Ireland a century and a half after the Battle of Clontarf, the Norsemen of Normandy. The reverberations of that invasion are still with us, as are their castles and their genes.

There is an old account from The Hebrides, of how the people, Vikings, gave a barrel of ale to the sea every year, in return for a plentiful supply of fish and woar. Until a generation ago, the farmers of Fingal drew cartloads of woar from the island and from the strands, after the autumn gales. There was a ‘woar war’ between the farmers of Skerries and Rush. It had to do with payment to the landlord for every cartload. The Rush men encroached on Skerries strand, without paying the charge. Maybe they were right. The Vikings would have sorted it all out, including the landlord, in jig time. Nowadays, the fertiliser comes in plastic sacks and woar is used to wrap sushi and make cosmetics.

Eric the Red was banished from Iceland, after a dispute over some wooden benches. He lent them to a neighbour for a wedding, as you do. The neighbour refused to give them back. Erik took an axe to him, as you might. There are no real trees in Iceland. Timber is precious. He took his family to Greenland. Leif Ericsson sailed to Dublin to get a cargo of  Yuletide ale for his father. Christmas ale; my father referred to it always as ‘refreshments.’ It is just possible that, on the way back, Eric and his crew sampled some of the refreshments——–because they missed Greenland and found North America. (Italian Americans vehemently dispute this.) They also found endless supplies of timber, a suitable Christmas gift for his father. (We know, of course, that Saint Brendan, the intrepid Kerryman, got there centuries before any of them. America should, by rights, belong to ‘The Kingdom’.)

The ‘sea roads’ joined  the Viking world like a spider web. Skerries is  a dewdrop on a filament of that great web. Kipling caught it well:

‘What is woman, that you forsake her

And the hearth fire and the home acre,

To go with the old, grey, widow-maker?

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Doesn’t any large vessel, appearing over the horizon, carry that element of beauty and menace? Be not alarmed. It’s one of ours.

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