Heads you win; tails I lose.

See the robbers passing by,

Passing by, passing by.

See the robbers passing by,

My fair lady.

(To the tune of London Bridge is falling down…) 


I made this drawing from Claes Visscher’s Panorama of London, published in Amsterdam in 1616, the year of Shakespeare’s death.  Old London Bridge was considered the most salubrious place to live, having endless supplies of relatively clean water and the perfect system for the disposal of waste. The road to Kent and the south, passed under an arch decorated with the heads of executed traitors, enemies of the Crown and thereby, of the people. You had to be ‘somebody’ to get your head over Traitors’ Gate.  You were put there as an example to others and as a warning not to do it again, which, of course, worked. Punishment was swift and hideous.  Tradition has it that Saint Thomas More’s head remained incorrupt for many months, probably giving the wrong message about King Henry and his many reforms. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since those days and a great many heads have rolled, on various pretexts. The practice of exhibiting severed heads has died out in what we are pleased to call ‘civilized countries.’  The childrens’ rhyme, however, persists, although the accompanying game has given place to video games and electronic entertainment.  The game, as I recall it, involved linking of arms and attempts to pass through a gate, in time to the chant. It ended with

Chop, chop, chop.

The Irish writer, Father Peadar O Leary, recalled seeing, in more recent times, three black balls on spikes over the police barracks in Macroom. They were the heads of three 1848 revolutionaries. He never forgot the sight. It was the time of the Great Famine, when one horror was piled on another, leaving an indelible mark on our collective memory.  As a country, we have come a long way since then. We enjoy a standard of living unimaginable to people who live in countries ravaged and plundered by their own rulers or devastated by natural disasters. We live in a democracy, however imperfect; a dreadful system, as Churchill pointed out, but better than all the others. There is a fairly general acceptance of decency and fair play and the concept of sharing. We are far from perfect, but the aspiration underpins our society. It is a less strident form of patriotism. It is the patriotism of those who consider the welfare of others. These patriots don’t wave flags or brandish weapons to demonstrate their love of their fellow human beings. They won’t get their heads on coins or stamps or banknotes. They get on with things.

It is difficult to feel any sympathy for a Russian oligarch, confined to an arctic gulag. These are the people who rifled the resources of their country after the collapse of Communism. They spend their obscene wealth on football clubs and what they call yachts, vast ocean-going liners that dwarf the harbours of the warmer countries to the south. It is equally difficult to feel any great warmth or enthusiasm for Putin. They were the Nomenklatura, the elite of the old system. From time to time, we have had our own shabby, cut-price version of the Nomenklatura, the names, the ‘sound men’.

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I was approaching the East Link Bridge, with a car-load of children. I was fumbling for change. I should have planned ahead. Suddenly I was surrounded by the banshee wail of sirens and the thrummm of police motorbikes.  Nabbed, with only one hand on the wheel. Not quite. The policemen gestured the traffic into the side of the road.  A stream of Mercedes state cars flashed past, filled with important people. There was a national emergency. The government was taking to a nuclear bunker, to direct the affairs of the country through a time of crisis. I sat in awe of my betters, until the blue lights dwindled into the distance and the traffic began to move again. I told the children that they had been privileged to see the awesome power and majesty of government in action, at close quarters. They would recount this moment to their grandchildren. They might sit in the chimney corners of pubs in their old age and mooch free pints, in return for retelling the story to open-mouthed yokels.

Not entirely true. It was 1990 and Packie Bonner was about to win The World Cup for Ireland, in Italia . It became suddenly necessary for every patriotic Irishman and woman to rally to the flag and hasten to Genoa.  The cabinet ministers, fortunately, had state cars  and the forces of law and order to whisk them to the government jet at the airport. Had this not been possible, we would have been disgraced before the entire world and maybe, would not have won the World Cup, at all, at all. I remember the victory parade.

We have been going through difficult times. A great deal has been asked of the Irish people. It has borne down hard on many families.  Yet we have not rioted, burning buildings and cars or putting heads on pikes. A little light is being  shed on the incompetence and grubby peculation of some those chosen to run the country and its institutions. We have seen minor treasons exposed.  A few heads have metaphorically rolled. An apology would not be out of place. The Japanese do apology quite well. There is Hara Kiri. A bit flashy, requiring an expensive sword and also a bit messy.  There is the Yakuza chopping off of one’s own finger. As many of our Nomenklatura have been giving two fingers to the public for many years, one or two more wouldn’t be overdoing it. While waiting in traffic recently for the East Link Bridge to rise and fall again, dark, end of year thoughts assailed me. Put the heads under the bridge. Just show them when a boat passes through.  No. No. That would not be civilized, would it?

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Ali Baba and the Forty thieves

Went to school with dirty knees

But all that they could see,see, see,

Was the bottom of the deep, blue, sea, sea, sea. 



The gate lodge once housed a large family called Bingham. Presumably they opened and shut the gates as required. I thought of what fun they must have had, swinging on the gates. To me the children seemed remarkably tall. When I saw them walking to school, in various stages of tallness, they put me in mind of organ pipes. They all had fair hair. They walked in line astern.  I recalled them recently to a man whose wife is a priest in the Church of Ireland.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I remember the Binghams. They were unusual for the time. Poor Protestants.’

They were more unusual in being a large family. The gate lodge is bigger than the other Milverton gate lodges. It guards the main entrance to the demesne. There are imposing pillars and great iron gates. I sort of envied the Binghams, because they lived in a romantic place, The Shady Lane, with a wild wood at their back door. Their house was like something out of a Just William story. They had a vicar and Sunday School, just like William. (Not too keen on school on Sundays.) I imagined foxes and squirrels and maybe even fairies, in the woods. They might even have called them faeries. There was a big house and horses. There were those lovely wrought-iron railings and cut-stone walls and gate pillars, that always indicate the houses of the ‘gentry’. There were copses of magnificent trees. ‘For the house of the Planter, is known by the trees, as Austin Clarke said.  He said more, about the Planter’s daughter: ‘and oh, she was the Sunday in every week.’  The Binghams went away. I hope they prospered.

It was always a popular walk on Sundays, up Toker Hill, (I’m told that it should be ‘Tochar’, an old Irish word. Told by an old Irishman, actually,)  round by The Shady Lane and back by the Quarry Road. There is a lot more traffic nowadays and a lot more cyclists and joggers. There are power-walkers too. Watch out for those elbows.  At any time of year it is, nonetheless a pleasant walk. Long ago, boys went along those roads to look for birds’ nests in springtime and conkers  or crab-apples in the autumn. Young girls went there to gather primroses and wild woodbine for May altars. They picked blackberries in September.  Sometimes they encountered the young boys. Girls, if I recall correctly, had no interest in birds’ nests or conkers. They despised our juvenile pursuits and yet we were reluctant for them to go. At such times I was usually tongue-tied, although I longed to dazzle them with witty conversation. No such luck. There was one girl in particular. I prepared a menu of casual chat and scintillating remarks in my brain, in case I should meet her. She passed on her Raleigh. It was my opportunity to shine. I said nothing. ‘Snob’ she said, as she glided out of my life.  I wanted to go and throw myself in front of Healys’ bull, in defiance of the warning notice nailed to the gate post.  She would hear that I had been savagely gored and would regret her harsh word, but it would be too late. I wanted to hurl myself off the highest cliff in the quarry. She would be sorry then. But I didn’t. I knew that someday she would realise how unjust were her words and that she would fly back to me (on her Raleigh Gazelle. It had a basket on the handlebars, a carrier at the back and a three-speed gearbox. I just happened to notice that. There was gold writing on the black enamel. Elegant gold writing. Ah, well!)


Winter was the best time. The evenings were short. Darkness came early. The Moon appeared through the bare branches of the trees. You would always hear the cronk cronk of a pheasant in Hattons’  Wood, or the startled flapping of wood pigeons. A shot might echo in the gathering twilight, probably the landowner shooting some boys in the Cane Wood, as we were assured, was his practice. Everybody knew that. They were good canes though, and worth the risk.  There was a donkey up there somewhere. He could have been a few miles away,  but his roar carried in still, frosty air. An ass’s roar is a measure of distance in Ireland. The measurement varies according to atmospheric conditions. It’s a fair distance though, even a brave distance on a calm day. You might hear the rustling flight of lapwings and their shrill piping, as great flocks descended, to alight in a stubble field. Lapwings, a sign of cold weather.

We used to go up to the big house at Christmas, to buy holly. Perhaps Yuletide would be more appropriate. I thought of the holly and the ivy and the running of the deer. When blood is nipt and ways be foul, then nightly sings the staring owl. It was a setting for a mediaeval Yuletide, with wassailing in the hall and Tom bearing logs indoors. It was not a setting, in my imagination, for an Irish Christmas. The house was vast. We went  to the front door.  I saw animal heads on the wall inside, water buffalo, impala, wildebeest.  A tall man directed us around to the yard. We got a big bundle of holly,  for one shilling and sixpence. Nobody shot at us. That wonderful house was demolished to avoid crippling rates. Our one shilling and sixpence could not avert the evil day.

Fig - 22

A pair of peregrines nested on the high cliffs in Milverton quarry. I stopped there one still, cold evening, to try to catch a glimpse of them. I have never seen them, although I know people who know people who saw them, so it must be true. The blasting didn’t seem to worry them. I listened. The quarry dam made a soft rushing sound. From far away came the sound of singing, a group of girls on the Toker Hill. (Pace, old Irishman.)  They were singing in parts, as Sister Mel had taught them. Whispering Hope, whispering hope.  Sister Mel taught choir. She taught Maths too, and maintained and drove the tractor. She was a bookbinder and a cook. She could turn a hand to anything. She taught them well.

They laughed and started again.

Wait till the darkness is over,

Wait till the tempest is done,

I was transfixed. It was a perfect moment.

Will not the deepening darkness

Brighten the glimmering star?

It did. It did. I saw the star. I knew their voices. I saw them in my mind’s eye.  I stayed still, not wanting to meet them, or break the spell. I have never forgotten how beautiful they were, singing together on a  winter evening.

When the dark midnight is over

Watch for the breaking of day.


On Friday I will go with my grand daughter, to the Concert Hall, to hear Margaret and her friends, singing Handel’s Messiah, the perfect Wintersong.


George Best’s Map. Global Strategy. Ask your Mammy.

Untitled-28There is no denying that George was a genius in his own way. This map might suggest that he had leanings towards rugby rather than soccer. The map makes a lot of sense. There is a good solid weight at the bottom to keep the world upright. ‘Incognita’ is Latin for ‘Dunno’. Think of how much simpler life would be if we could admit to not knowing. Exploded gear-box diagrams or instructions for self assembly furniture, could label components ‘no idea’, and ‘haven’t a clue’; ‘try a six-inch nail’; ‘lash in some glue.’  That’s how it works out in the end anyway. I went past  a hospital once, in the company of a farmer. He remarked: ‘My brother is in there right now, operatin’. He might as well be lookin’ into a bush’. It’s a learning curve.

George’s world is elliptical. There is a good reason for that. Otherwise half the world would be round the other side. Have you noticed that Leonardo’s Last Supper shows everybody on one side of the table. They call it ‘dough-nutting’. It is very important to get into the photograph with the leader. I recall an old geography teacher who told me how to get rid of an inspector. Inspectors used to visit schools to get invited to lunch. ‘Did you ever see an inspector producing the cigarettes?’ He didn’t care for inspectors. ‘Tell him that you’re having a bit of difficulty explaining Mollweide’s elliptical equal-area net.  Ask him to run through it with the class. That’ll get rid of him. Heh, heh.’ Mollweide dealt in sine curves  and stuff. Only Mollweide understood it and George Best, on one of his better days.

Bear in mind that George drew this map less than a century after Columbus. He had no satellites to photograph the world. He had never been to any of the new continents or islands. He gave the public what they wanted, a sea route to the Indies. This map is a call to adventure. Frobisher’s Strait is the most direct route. There would be no Spaniards to interrupt the voyage.  It is there because Frobisher thought that he had found it. Frobisher needed it. He wished. He prayed. He dreamed and George drew the map. It was  a bit like Dumbo. ‘You gotta have faith, Dumbo.’ It took another five hundred years for anyone to sail through the waters of the North -West passage. George might have done better to stick to the footeballe but it was illegal in Queen Elizabeth’s time. People were neglecting their archery. England and Spain were engaged in a global struggle. There are always at least two super-powers engaged in a global struggle, allied to an arms race.

I could never resist a map. I saw an advertisement in the paper.  ‘Get your free global strategy maps.’ Just what I needed. I was an eager student at the time. Students will go for anything free. I wrote away. You write in to complain. You write away for freebies. I forgot about it. The Chinese were shelling Quemoy and Matsu.  They did it every day at twelve o’clock so that the other Chines could go down into their bunkers. They were just making a point. The Pakistanis were shelling the Indians in the high Himalayas. Their people were starving and wracked by earthquakes and floods, but first things first. The Indians are sending a probe to Mars. Should we be worried? Eden was making a bags of things in Suez. Russian tanks were grinding and clanking towards Budapest.  A man called to the door. He wore an impeccable suit. His shoes were polished. He had a dazzling white shirt and cufflinks, all things alien to a student. He carried a brief case. He smiled. He had called, it transpired, to deliver my free global strategy maps. Just in time, to judge by the dismal news on the wireless. Imré Nagy was even then, making his plaintive broadcasts from Budapest. There was no time to lose. I brought him into the sitting room.

He discerned at a glance that I was a man of extraordinary erudition. I understood how the world works. I was a man of vision, perhaps even a man of destiny. With the right knowledge I could lead my people out of darkness. I could show the world a better way. Oh, all right. What do I have to do? It was ludicrously simple. For a small monthly payment I could have, nay, would have, access to all the world’s knowledge. How much? Too much. Less than a daily packet of cigarettes. I don’t smoke. Or a daily pint of stout. I don’t drink. ( I wasn’t much of a student, was I?) Would I deny my children the chance of an education? I have no children. I was a celibate, tee-total, non smoking ascetic. I rarely indulged in food or the pleasures of this world. Mediaeval hermits were roistering layabouts by comparison. (It was the truth.) I began to worry about my children.   The cufflinks glittered. I stared at them. My eyes glazed over. I was falling into his spell. I will obey.

My mother put her head around the door. I know  she sensed that her cub was in trouble. You’ve seen it with lionesses and polar bears, even the wren. ‘Are you folk nearly finished?’ He invited her to join us. He was good. He invited her into her own sitting room. He gave her the spiel.  As an adult she would understand the necessity for Enclycopaedia Britannica. In fact if she had bought it years ago, there would have been no need to waste and hour and a half on this dunderhead of a son. He didn’t put it quite so starkly. She nodded. He elaborated. There was a special offer, a reduced rate for Ireland. ‘Oh, indeed, and why is that?’  I watched him commit hara-kiri in our sitting room. UNESCO has designated Ireland as one of the world’s educationally deprived areas. Encyclopaedia Britannica were prepared to do their bit. They were giving a special reduction, for one year only  to Irish buyers. After that year it was Devil take the hindmost. Not a moment to lose. Eejit!  He didn’t know my mother. She had dedicated her life to education. It was her guiding passion. She was proud of her country. She exploded. His smile faded. He fled, with his cufflinks and his briefcase. ‘The cheek of him!’  Sheepishly, I held onto my global strategy maps. I found that I could launch my missiles across the Arctic Ocean. I had never thought of that.  I had always thought the the US and Soviets would send  them over Europe, the Mercator way. I could control the world’s oil supplies  with fleets at Aden, Simonstown and Gibraltar.  On the other hand, I could send my Mammy in to sort them out.  Maybe I would have been better employed in trying to get George Best to play for the Republic of Ireland.  A cunning strategy.

They got me though. They caught me in a shopping mall years later. I was still a non-smoker. I had children with me. I was a goner. I love the look of my encylopaedia. I have only read as far as Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. What was the name of that eejit, the president of Georgia, who invaded Russia when Putin was at the Olympics in Beijing? He thought Putin wouldn’t notice. He thought that NATO would weigh in on his side. I could have set him straight. Note: do not invade Russia. It’s large and it’s cold. If you feel that you must, at least bring a note from  your Mammy.spider webs 007

Nowadays we get our information from The Web. We don’t know who writes it. It may be all wrong, but it’s free!! and readily available at the click of a mouse. I keep a wary eye on the Chinese. If they invade, I shall build a barricade from my volumes, the macropaedia and the micropaedia, plus the free three volume Webster’s dictionary and the annual update volumes that I have never opened . However, there is no cause for alarm. They will probably buy Ireland by regular instalments. They have great smiles too.

There was a Global Web conference in Dublin last week. All the Web strategists were there. I wasn’t invited to speak. I was too busy anyway, photographing spiders. They’re taking over the world, you know. Scientists tell us that spiders could even survive on Mars. Where did it all go wrong, George? I’m worried again.

spider webs 006

Hay machines. The Battle of the Boyne and Wee Hughie.

Irish memories are notoriously long. Perhaps I should say Celtic memories. Do you remember Canon Sydney MacEwan, the noted tenor and his plaintive ode? ‘Och! he’s gone to school, Wee Hughie…’ Ah cannae write the accent but I felt for the little beggar, every September, for many years. I shared Wee Hughie’s fear and trepidation….’Wi’ Joe’s owld coat upon him, Och! the poor wee man’. Life can be daunting enough for little people. Don’t make it worse.

But sometimes the sun shines and there are long summer days, days when Bob and Ronnie Duff cut the hay. They would occasionally send us ahead of the horses to watch out for corncrakes’ nests. They would leave a little island of hay for the bird or neglect a bit of the headland. They would get a grant from Brussels nowadays, for this small act of courtesy to their raucous neighbours The mowing machine whirred and gathered the hay. The blades moved back and forth, just like the barber’s clipper–but bigger, of course. The swathes lay on the bright green shoots of aftergrass. It dried and was forked into cocks. The cocks were cranked onto the flat hay-bogie. The biggest thrill was to ride on the back of the bogie. The boards were polished by the sliding haycocks. Your feet dangled on the road. There were tar bubbles on the road–for attention later. Butter will remove the tar off sticky hands, but not, alas, off clothes. Anyway it was rationed. That was in the years after the war.
Newgrange Ledwidge 006Newgrange Ledwidge 007

This is where the famous battle took place. William’s army forced the passage of the river at Oldbridge, after hours of cannonading and slaughter. Meanwhile his cavalry went upstream and crossed at Slane to out-flank King James’s troops, despite the best efforts of gallant Patrick Sarsfield. King William’s troops advanced, to drum and fife: ‘An lile ba léir í; ba linn an lá…’ the song that whistled a king out of three kingdoms.

What was that all about? What brought this obscenity into the summer meadows of Meath and the quiet reaches of the Boyne? Why did the Pope, Old Red-Socks, The Scarlet Whore of Babylon, (You’ve heard the rhetoric,) put his money on Protestant William? What wry cynicism prompted the French king to inflict his Dutch war on the misfortunate people of Ireland? Was it just part of the great game?

Dan Snow has explained it all, with holograms marching out of his briefcase and computer graphics designed to make us all strategists. Get men to the bridge! Dig in here! Group your artillery there! But holograms do not cry out. Their limbs are not shorn off by cannon balls. They do not lie in swathes on summer grass, with their brains dashed out by musket balls and their life blood seeping into the river shallows. ‘Fusilade’ Can’t you hear the whistle and the smack of lead in the word itself.

King James heard it, on the heights of Donore. He heard the fifes and drums. The jig was up. He legged it from the battlefield, having instructed the Irish to hold out for as long as possible. Shrewd strategy. Tradition has it that he spent the night at Hacketstown House, near Skerries and then made good time to Duncannon in Wexford to set sail for France. He never came back, despite the legions of Irish poets who lamented the fall of the Stuarts. The Scots lament his grandson, the Bonny Prince, who left his own men standing for hours under cannon fire at Culloden. He came to a sorry and drink-sodden end as a pensioner of the French king. What a shower!

I learned another song when I was in school: ‘An bfhaca tú mo Sheamaisín?’ ‘ Did you see my little Seamus?’ Like Wee Hughie, he was going down the road, I assumed to school. He had a little yellow book in his pocket. He had neither hat nor coat. He went barefoot. I felt sorry for him also, until I learned that this was no little urchin condemned to school. This was little James, in full flight from the battle. At least one Irish poet didn’t buy the Stuart line.

Niall Ferguson argues that the Great Revolution was merely a strategic merger between two commercial empires, the Dutch and the British. It was accomplished without bloodshed in Britain, if you don’t count the poor divils at Derry, Aughrim, Enniskillen and the Boyne, (That’s another song,) plus Athlone and Limerick and the general dismembering of Ireland. It left a long and rancid memory.

Incidentally,Shéamaisín is pronounced phonetically Hay machine. It’s strange what comes to mind when you drive along the Boyne.

Excalibur, Glendalough Swim,Turf-cutting on the Featherbed, Ron

Glendalough Swim 067Glendalough Swim 006Glendalough Swim 040Glendalough Swim 069

Last Sunday we drove along Excalibur Drive, on our way to a great tournament. There were portly clerics on ambling horses, noblemen on prancing steeds, fine ladies in gilded carriages drawn by sturdy peasants, peddlers and mountebanks, thimble-riggers and vendors of sweetmeats. There was an inn-keeper playing bagpipes and a pardoner with his bag of relics. I noticed a reeve and a miller engaged in a slagging match. No, no, my imagination is running ahead of me. The road takes its name from a film, telling the story of Arthur. The knights, as I recall, clanked around in armour all the time. I think they wore their armour at the dinner table and in bed. They did a lot of quaffing. They didn’t drink much in those far-off days. They quaffed. There’s nothing like a quick quaff on the way to a tournament. Even the ladies had coifs of hair. The knights wore coifs of chainmail. Coiffing is a technical manoeuvre in mountain-biking, but more of that anon. King Lear devised a stratagem, ‘to shoe a troop of horse with felt and steal upon his enemies.’ It would stop some of the clanking, but where would you get felt on a wet Sunday morning in Wicklow? I should rephrase that.

It wasn’t a tournament at all. It was the Glendalough Swim. It has something of the colour and panoply of a tournament, without the fanfares and the clanking and clashing and shattering of lances. We had two family members taking part. We swim by proxy. It should be warmer that way but there was a draught coming down the valley. We were frozen. The water they told us, was pleasant. It is not really a spectator sport. We watched for two lads in yellow caps. They all look like masked super-heroes; Captain Neoprene. Nevertheless it was a great event, with all the excitement generated by people who love their sport. There is an extraordinary camaraderie about triathletes, cyclists, long-distance swimmers and ironmen. One percent reckon they have a chance of winning. Ninety nine percent exult in the challenge. Point nought, nought, nought percent of me would love to take part. The rest of me is content to carry the bags, shout inaudible word of encouragement and quaff copious cups of hot coffee.

Saint Kevin came there many centuries ago for the solitude. He came to fast and pray and get away from the world. So good was he at getting away from the world that his fame spread. The world came to him. A monastic city grew up around him. There must have been days when he loaded up on carbs, pulled on his wet-suit, did a long arcing dive from his place of prayer and went for a leisurely, contemplative swim in the lake. There he could achieve the detachment of the long distance swimmer and look at the world from a different angle. Perhaps he lay on his back and gazed heavenward at towering mountains, at tumbling cataracts and flying clouds and gave heartfelt thanks for being alive. ‘Blessed art thou, a monk swimming'( with acknowledgements to Malachy MacCourt.)

Glendalough retains a monastic hush, despite the tourists, the athletes, the picnickers gamely defending their sandwiches from the wasps, the mountain-bikers searching for ever more challenging hills. We dined under a tree filled with brightly coloured finches. It was like that bush in the Natural History Museum in Kensington, festooned with Darwin’s finches. Our finches chirped and hopped around, snatching at crumbs. Darwin’s were immortalised by the shotgun and the taxidermist’s art. Is there a paradox in the fact that the most ardent protectors of the wild bird habitats of Wicklow, are the gun clubs. They reckon the health of the population by the number of birds shot during the season. The grouse and the partridge thrive, while turf-cutters are hunted almost to extinction.

You do not hurry home from Wicklow. You drift along the mountain roads and stop. And gaze. I can see Saint Kevin’s point. We visited our old turf bank. We found it by instinct. The Sugar Loaf Mountain mooched along behind us. The old tracks were overgrown with heather. The cuttings were filled with water. Brown turf and green mosses gleamed in the amber rivulets. I wanted to get a spade and release the waters, to set them free from that great sponge and let them carry on down to the sea. but Zwounds! I stood unarmed on the blasted heath. A century or two ago we paid five ducats to My Lord of Powerscourt for turbary rights on a section of The Featherbed Mountain. We stood with our snivelling brood at the postern gate, with much knuckling of forelocks. My Lord’s reeve took five quid from us and vouchsafed a receipt. (The language is catching.) We went up the mountain with some friends and cut turf for the winter. A man with a BMW, cutting nearby, remarked: ‘There must be a war on the way. People always cut turf on The Featherbed when there is a war.’ It struck me that the economy must be in a bad way when a man with a Beamer would stoop to the level of us lowly peasants to win his winter fuel from the bog.

After paying for petrol, sandwiches, Lion Bars and fizzy drinks, the turf was probably the most expensive fuel in Ireland. The purists always talk about blackened kettles and tea made with bog water. Nah! Our children preferred Fanta. It fills you up with gas. You can’t work for long after lunch. More bad economics. Yet we cooked the Christmas turkey with turf from Wicklow. It seemed to taste better.

Sound carries on the bog. You can hear conversations a mile away. The children scampered around and had turf fights. They shouted and laughed. They fell in the water and laughed some more. Their voices carried. Our little turf cutters and child labourers have gained their freedom from serfdom. They have children of their own. They no longer cut and gather the turf, but their voices still carry down the years. We heard them on the mountain wind last Sunday on The Featherbed road.

So who is Ron? He sounds like a bloke. A bloke goes to work on a bike. He fixes things like radios and television sets. He watches football at weekends and has the occasional quaff in the ale house. He wears a cap. He’s a decent bloke. No, not this Ron.

Ron was the name of King Arthur’s spear, Excalibur’s poor relation. With that name, I don’t think he got a part in the film.

“I drove slowly along the mountain road with the windows down. Fitful sunlight chased the cloud shadows through the valley below, Glenasmole, where Oisín fell off the horse, after his return from the land of the Ever Young. It behoved me to go carefully. Terre verte and brown, the valley was camouflaged in the colours of the model aeroplanes that used to hang from our bedroom ceilings. Hurricanes, Messerschmitts and Lancasters and, supreme among them, the Spitfire, they swirled in a crazy dog-fight whenever the door or window was opened.
Bandit at nine o’clock, said a warning voice in my brain. Not ten feet from the car, riding the thermal with the grace and arrogance of a fighter ace, was a kestrel. He looked at me with one glittering onyx eye, gave a little left rudder, a touch of aileron and peeled off from the formation to dive away into the valley. I raised my hand to salute as he dwindled to a speck and vanished from my sight.”

On Borrowed Ground. Hugh Fitzgerald Ryan. Wolfhound Press.
Now available from chaospress@eircom.net