If the shoe fits

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Beneath the polished flagstones of Saint Canice’s magnificent cathedral, in Kilkenny, there lie the bones of a humble shoemaker. He lies there amid the tombs and memorials of noble knights and ladies, soldiers and bishops, a humble cobbler, a cordwainer, a follower of Saint Hugh, the martyr. And why not?  It is likely that during his life, he brought more ease and happiness to people, than all the querulous bishops, preachers thundering from the pulpit, or bellicose knights clashing together on the field of battle. Saint Hugh was a shoemaker and early Christian martyr. He was, of course, hanged for his beliefs. His colleagues were forbidden to take his body from the gallows and over time, his bones fell to the ground. His fellow shoemakers gathered the bones and make implements out of them. Saint Hugh was venerated, ever afterwards, in their work.

I was a martyr myself, a martyr to sore feet and uncomfortable shoes. Everyone likes new shoes, the shine of polished leather and the authoritative rap of heels on floorboards—until you realise that the left one is pinching, just a little bit, over the instep. The right one rubs at the back of the heel. A bad buy. It will take time. I loved to walk home barefoot from the beach in summer. As far as Balbriggan Street corner with its high kerb anyway. I always managed to stub  a toe there.  In later life  I went to Mr. Guilfoyle, the shoemaker. He lived near Gallows Green in Kilkenny. It has a less ominous name nowadays. He was known to make sandals for the Capuchins, an order distinguished for their piety and charity. I wanted to walk a mile or two in their shoes. By a special dispensation from the Pope, he made a pair for me. They were good for the sole. My life was transformed. I felt goodwill towards all.  A circular bald spot began to emerge on the top of my head, a sure sign of sanctity. Margaret said that they looked dreadful, but I forgave her. She relented on the understanding that I would not wear them with socks. Why would I wear socks?  Elephants flap their ears to cool the blood. Sandal-wearers wear sandals to maintain a flow of cool blood, from the extremities to the  brain. “It’s all about footwear.” (Cliff Claven. Cheers)  “All the great civilisations wore sandals.” (Ibid.)

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I took Alan to an orthopaedic specialist to see about his feet. He turned his toes in, to the extent that it became a problem. He was tripping himself up. The specialist was in FitzWilliam Street, as were they all. That was before all the 199 year leases ran out on the old Georgian houses and the ESB made a dog’ dinner of the streetscape with their Stalinist block of offices. It was in the days when we paid doctors in guineas. ‘Walk him over to the door,’ said the consultant. ‘Now walk him back. Hmm.’  He wrote out a prescription. Take this up to my shoemaker’, (he wrote a name,) ‘in the Coombe and he will put a lift on his shoes. Twenty guineas, please.’ He wrote a receipt. It all took about five minutes. I did as directed. I had to carry the child some of the way. We had a nice trip, in every sense of the word. We came home on the train and walked across the field where our new house stood. The field had been dug up for drains and new roads. We walked through a blizzard of thistledown. The prescription worked. It was worth every guinea. He ran and kicked footballs and climbed walls, until the shoes were in flitters. It became necessary to get new shoes and of course, new lifts. I couldn’t face the journey to Dublin. It made sense to bring the prescription to Mattie Grimley, son of Tommie Grimley, in Barrack Lane, (Little Strand Street). Mattie came from a shoemaking family. My father-in-law always spoke about how he would sit in Tommie’s workshop after work and chat. He spoke very highly of Tommie Grimley.

I explained the situation to Mattie.

‘Lifts? Aye. Three eighths of an inch.’

‘Doctor Brady said a quarter of an inch. It’s in the prescription.’

‘Who?’

‘Doctor Brady of FitzWilliam Square. He’s a leading orthopaedic consultant.’ (Did you ever hear of a reasonably good consultant or a downright menace of a consultant? Christian Barnard, the leading heart transplant consultant, in fairness the first of his kind, recommended making love to lots of young women and drinking lots of red wine, for a healthy heart. Sounds good in theory but he died not long afterwards. I digress.)

Mattie peered at the letter. ‘Never heard of him. I always do three eighths.’

I had paid twenty guineas for that letter.  He handed the paper back to me. He gave a non-committal grunt. I contemplated going back to Doctor Brady and tackling him about the measurement. Mattie Grimley’s brother was a bishop, after all.

Mattie did the job. He charged me seven shillings and sixpence. I was not qualified to question his workmanship. It worked.

Fergus introduced triathlon into the family. He awakened a sleeping dragon. Alan became attracted to the sport. The house filled with lycra, running shoes and bikes. He doesn’t break in new shoes. He breaks in his feet to fit them. It’s an endurance sport. The two other brothers, Tom and Justin were drawn into swimming. Justin has progressed to Ironman. Alison is no mean cyclist. Sarah has dipped her toes in the triathlon waters.

We went to Hawaii to support Alan in the World Championships and (incidentally?) to attend his wedding to Eimear. He did well on both counts.

A group of young Americans cheered on their friend, Brad with that alarming enthusiasm of the athletic Christian. ‘Great stuff, Brad. Jesus is with you.’  (Jesus, a sandal wearer.) I have never quite understood why Jesus favours one athlete over another or one army over another. Why is he in the corner for one boxer and not equally for another? I suppose all fights, matches and races would end in a draw. All wars would end in a draw.Why bother? Brads are little nails used by shoemakers.

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Alan is now an experienced ironman, going from strength to strength. The bloody fellow came third in the world in his age group. He has just announced that he is going to coach others to follow in his footsteps. I think I’ll stick with the sandals.

Mattie Grimley must have known a thing or two.

See for yourself at http://chaosireland.com/index.html

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

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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
http://www.hughfitzgeraldryan.com