Marbles and balls of steel. Fingal County.


There was a hierarchy in the world of marbles. There was an established rate of exchange. The lowliest form of marble was the ‘meb’ (rhymes with’ pleb’ a derivative of a Greek word meaning the common multitude.) They were made of clay, generally brown in colour and could be mistaken for aniseed balls. A meb had to strike a superior marble numerous times, before victory could be claimed. Likewise in swaps. The meb was like the low-number cards in a pack, in comparison to the royal cards. Mebs were almost a cause for shame, except that, in the hands of a skilled operator, a meb could win the treasured glassiers or taws. A meb could not expect to defeat a steeler. It would be like a low-born villein entering the lists, to challenge Sir Launcelot, before the lords and ladies of Camelot. Avaunt, thou varlet. Get thee hence. The taw was a giant meb, made of ceramic. It was an ugly thing, about the size of a gob-stopper, but it had added value, because of its size. In the world of marbles, size matters.

Glassiers meant the world to us. Nobody had seen Earth-rise, in those days, but we had marbles that looked like Saturn, without its rings, Earth with its swirling clouds and deep blue oceans. There were opaque ones that seemed carved from ivory and nacreous ones, carved from the inner recesses of the pearl oyster. You could carry the whole solar system in your pocket on the way to school and lose it all on the way home in a long game of follier-uppers. I think I started to lose interest in marbles when a cheap glassier came on the market. It was a sphere of clear glass with a shard of colour inserted. Technically, it had the same value as a real marble, but I could not accept imitations or imposters. I don’t know how marbles were made, or who made them. I still can’t envisage how they could be formed to such perfect spheres, without a sign of a seam or the marks of a mould.

There was a belief that steelers fell from trains. They popped out of the bearings and could be harvested along the railway tracks. Like Johnny Cash, I walked the line. I kept a close watch, but I never found an oily steeler nestling beside a sleeper. I looked in the boxes of axle grease. It must still hold the world record for vile smells. Whooo! The grease heated up with friction and seeped down onto the axles, like an elephant in must. There were no ball-bearings on the trains,  in those days, or so I am assured. The grease lubricated white-metal ‘bushes’. Look it up, yourself. I have enough problems.  Steelers came from the garage. You could get them if you knew someone with a garage. No joy. The Swedes made the best steelers. They smuggled them to the Allies, during the war, in high-speed launches. They went into the moving parts of tanks and military machines. They enabled gun-turrets to swivel and aeroplane propellers to rotate. If you could get to a battlefield you could get loads of them. Without those Swedish steelers, the war would have been lost. The Skylon, symbol of The Festival of Britain in 1950, balanced all its enormous weight on a single (British) ball-bearing. Just goes to show…something. The steeler was the A Bomb of the marble world. It was the armoured war-horse, the Big Bertha. With a steeler you could blast the opposition into oblivion…. unless, of course, an assassin with a meb and the hands of a gunfighter, arrived on the scene. You could be ‘Rooked’ (pronounced ‘rooooked’) by a steeler.

There has been some discussion recently as to why the councillors of Fingal County did not vote themselves and Fingal into oblivion, by facilitating a return to a monolithic Mega Dublin.  Fingal has an ancient identity, going back to the time of the Vikings. It is worth retaining. Fingal is a small entity in the context of The Greater Dublin Area. Although the ‘default setting’ with regard to any form of government or politics, is a protracted sneer, Fingal County has been a success. Its councillors are accessible. All politics is local. Matters got lost or concealed in the greater County Dublin. We know the history of the scandals. A ‘foot-soldier’ councillor explained the modus operandi for getting some unpopular item through the planning process, in a particular area: the councillors from the relevant area opposed or abstained; councillors from remoter areas voted in favour, as directed. There were no electoral repercussions.

There was a small marsupial creature, who boasted that he had balls of steel, scurrying through the undergrowth of Dublin County Council. It all happened far away, in O Connell Street and in Conways’ pub. He dispensed largesse from his pouch, in brown envelopes, at the behest of the bigger political beasts.  He greased the mechanisms and quite a few palms. There was a resounding clatter in Dublin Castle during a planning tribunal when his much-vaunted steelers hit the floor, under the basilisk gaze of Justice Flood.  Some light was let into the jungle. Some big beasts were flushed out. I went to the funeral of my humble foot-soldier. He got out, just in time. One of the big beasts, noted himself, for digging up trees in areas that displeased him at election time, delivered a eulogy. It was in March, when the crows and the rooks begin their housing developments. They took (grave?) exception to the intrusion. They set up a clamour of protest. He was annihilated.  He was well and truly roooked. The rooks were more eloquent in their criticism, than the gullible electorate of County Dublin. He wasn’t a steeler in the great scheme of things. He was only a taw. Justice Flood was the genuine steeler. Keep it local.

Losing your marbles is a hazard of getting older. It is usually conveyed by a circular movement of the finger at the temple and a knowing look. You lose track of things and get the wrong end of the stick. You lose the thread of your..of your.. em, argument. Couldn’t happen to me.  The Greeks lost their marbles to Lord Elgin. They are in the British Museum. I went in to have a look.  There were no steelers or even a few decent glassiers. There were only a few oul’ statues with bits knocked off them.  What was all the fuss about? I went out and had some lunch. They do a nice crayfish salad in the atrium. Now that’s worth a look. I mean the atrium… and, in fairness, the crayfish.


The museum has one item that I would happily steal; a little, inscribed Anglo-Saxon brooch. Aelwyn owned me. May God own her. Simple, a treasure, a person, eternity all encapsulated in a phrase. I would trade all my marbles for it… if I hadn’t lost them all many years ago to some Greek fellow.