Twelve Acres and Angels…..

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My father-in-law, Barney Duignan, was at one time, the youngest sergeant in the Garda Síochána, or The Civic Guards as they were called at the founding of the force. He was eighteen at the time, one of the first to join. This was at the time of the foundation of the state, when a bitter and brutal civil war was in progress. It is difficult to overstate the courage and dedication of those young men who went out, unarmed, to enforce the law in a land where assassination and reprisal had become the norm. Likewise it is impossible to adequately acknowledge the debt owed by our country to those who by moral force, gained acceptance for the authority of the democratically elected government. His first posting was Tallaght, a country village in County Dublin. He cycled out, with Paddy Glynn on the crossbar of his bike, to open the first police station in the village. Paddy Glynn was later, the sergeant in Skerries for many years. Barney went on to achieve the rank of Chief Superintendent, driven by an inflexible respect for the law, justice and public service.  There he is, standing beside a biplane in the Twelve Acres field in Skerries, some time in the 1920’s. It amused him to point  out that he had flown from the field in which our house now stands. He survived the hazards of early aviation and equally, he survived the hazards of smoking. Smoking beside high-octane aviation fuel can seriously damage your health. I have spotted him in old photographs of motor cycle races, marshalling the crowds that thronged onto Strand Street. The smell of the high-octane petrol still brings me back to the excitement of the Skerries 100.  I have seen the letter of commendation he received from the RNLI. Although he had the countryman’s dread of the sea, he volunteered one night to make up the numbers in the lifeboat. ‘It was my duty.’ Simple as that.

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I heard John B. Keane talking about the spiritual importance of a field. A field is the product of effort and the accumulation of memories and associations. What a great field it was. Despite the name, I understand that it contained twenty five Irish acres. Irish acres were introduced during the time of the confiscations to take more land while making the theft sound less excessive. I don’t know how this worked out at twelve. I saw cricket matches there and the bivouacs of the LDF. There was a gymkhana in The Twelve Acres and a horse show. I can recall how the earth trembled under the hooves of the enormous draught horses. Their manes were plaited with ribbons. Their tails were plaited in like manner.Their necks arched as gracefully as the necks of the Parthenon horses. Their harness shone with burnished brass. Their flanks were combed and gleaming and they wore their white-tufted fetlocks with the panache of a regiment of prancing Zulu warriors. You could easily see how a line of heavy cavalry would strike terror into an opposing army. The Pony Daly had a plough-horse in the show. We wanted him to win as he was a friend of our parents. I can’t remember the result but the hooves still pound in my memory. The nomads of the various travelling circuses set up their tents here. The excitement was almost too much for small children. From our back window, you could see the poles of the big top rising into the sky and the striped tent materialising, as if by magic. There was magic. They were real circuses, with elephants and lions. They had monkeys and horses and trapeze artists defying gravity. They had clowns. I still dread clowns. The clowns had a collapsing motor car that backfired. Is there anything as funny as a backfiring car? I had a few cars like that. Not a bit funny.

We crossed this field with our father, on autumn mornings, on our way to the mushroom fields along the cliffs. We went in by the stile at the Red Shed. That was a barn, always filled with hay and straw. It would have made a great hangar. He showed us where the soldiers had cut rifle slots in the corrugated iron in 1916. The farmer had claimed compensation from the War Office, for damage to his barn. He wanted a new barn. Due to the ‘exigencies of the war effort’ they could not provide him with a barn but they sent him the cost of repair. Lloyd George was in government. What would you expect?  The barn was patched with pieces of iron, bolted into place like giant pot-menders. They rusted. The barn rusted. Red lead could not halt the decline. The rectangle of the barn became a trapezium. It inclined. It sagged and eventually disintegrated, around the time that the British Empire did likewise. All that red on the world map in school was really rust.

At the extreme S.E. corner of the field stood Cheeser Barrett’s forge. He wore a ‘cheese-cutter’ cap, still popular with sailing folk, despite the ubiquitous baseball cap. Cheeser saw his trade decline, with the advent of tractors and motor transport. Horses became a rarity. As a man of action and a serious drinking man, he occasionally took matters into his own hands. I saw him standing in the middle of the road, swinging at the passing traffic with an iron bar. Perhaps he resented the petrol fumes.  He made a big impact on me, as a symbol of the passing of an old way of life, just as he no doubt made an impact on the passing motorists. We all handle change in our different ways.

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We bought a house at the extreme N .E.corner of the new development. We saw the field turn into a World War I landscape as new roads were laid and the slope was graded. Poppies and thistles grew everywhere. Margaret describes how she saw me coming home from the train, carrying a child on my shoulders, through a blizzard of thistledown. The thistledown drifted on the breeze. There are a few descendants still lurking in our garden. The children called them angels. The angels drifted in through open windows and sailed around the house. The children blew them aloft and laughed as the little parachutes drifted languidly about the room. The dandelion clocks told the time on long summer days as we set our house and gardens in order. There are still some dandelions too but …live and let live. The Twelve Acres has been good to us.

Barney delighted in his grandchildren and they in him. I never imagined him as an angel but I like to think that maybe occasionally, he circles above the Twelve Acres field to keep an eye on things, as any vigilant Guard would.

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Size is Relative. The Patter of Tiny Feet. Money Laundering. Brother Bernard and Showbiz.

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You pays your money and you takes your choice/chance. The view from the top is not quite staggering. Small children nowadays, are used to Legoland and Thomasland. They play in specially designed play zones, with enough slides and ladders to tire them out by bedtime. Worth every penny. The carnival amusements were here: chair-o-planes, dodgems, roundabouts and a carousel with horses galloping over an undulating course. There were hoopla stalls, a rifle range of sorts and even a ghost train. Infants rattled the steering wheels off wooden cars and lorries as they whizzed around and around, to screeches of fear and delight. There were occasional thimble-riggers and three-card-trick men to ensnare the gullible. Ensnared by a brilliant sales pitch, I bought a pack of trick cards. Ten of clubs! Ten of clubs! Which card have you picked? Ten of clubs! Amazing! Every second card in the pack was a ten of clubs. They were slightly smaller than the regular cards, so that the nimble fingers of the dealer could always find ten of clubs!! I couldn’t remember the patter. Nor could I find the ..which one was it again? Flop-sweat. Goddammit, I must be gullible.

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Build it and they will come. It’s true up to a point. The biggest bull-ring in South America was built in Colonia del Sacramento in 1910. The following year the government outlawed bull fighting. Timing is everything, as with conjuring, comedy and card tricks. They come to The London Eye because it is new. The view from aloft is quite staggering. There is no shuffling, except in the queue. You pays your money etc. They come to the Pyramids and the Colosseum because they are old.

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Roll up! Roll up! Will rubber-neckers of the future gaze in wonder at the rusted spokes of The Eye or buddleia sprouting from the ruins of Big Ben? Will a latter-day Barnum sell tickets to The Egress and The Incredible Floating Match on the Thames? Will they come and will they buy? Of course they will.  It’s all in the patter.  Poets will  inevitably, get in on the act. There now is but an Heap of lime and sand/For the Skriech-Owl to build her baleful Bower….All those(O Pity) now are turned to Dust/And overgrown with black Oblivion’s Rust.  A few coats of hammerite and a tarpaulin should get the carnival through the winter. Come along and join my heritage tour of the site, (for a modest fee). A few places still available.

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I fell for this one: miniscule human skeletons unearthed near The Boyne, not far from Drogheda. At last, archaeological evidence of The Wee Folk, The Little People, Leprechauns, if you will. Empirical proof that the Good People, The Fairies who lived underground and in our collective imagination, actually existed. The account was couched in scholarly language. The Boyne Valley is overflowing with legends and ancient ruins. Hundreds of thousands of tourists go there every year to gaze at the tombs and megaliths of ancient kings who lived before history began. Those were people who understood magic and the movements of the Sun and stars. The tourists come to wonder and most importantly, to buy tickets. There is no need to shout ‘Roll up! Roll up!’ They want to encounter the magic of antiquity. I wanted to believe. I wanted to see the Little People dancing by moonlight on the sands at Mornington. I wanted to hear their unearthly music sprinkling on the raths and tumuli of legend. The evidence showed that they ate fish and hunted moles. Moles? In Ireland? I should have smelt a rat. Goddammit, I must be gullible. Of course, the Fairies (not that I really believe in them) are noted for their trickery. Maybe this is the distraction technique beloved of conjurors, pick-pockets and three-card-tricksters. Maybe they put mole bones in their graves to deceive us into thinking that they were never there in the first place; that it is all a hoax. Maybe I’m not so gullible after all.

Brother Bernard was charged with raising funds for the building of a new school. The blood of the great Barnum flowed in his veins. There was a touch of gentility about him. He claimed to have taught Prince Rainier of Monaco. Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen. He organised concerts and played to packed halls. We had conjurors, comedians and opera singers.  We had Juno and the Paycock and John B. Keane.We had Charlie McGee and his gay guitar.  It was a miniscule Palace of Varieties. He bought a new piano for the school. He directed us to dispose of the old wreck of a piano  by throwing it off the fire escape. It went out with a bang, crash, tinkle, tinkle. Pure showbiz. I looked down at it. It had become an archaeopteryx fossil in the yard below, with bones and arpeggios in a pile and teeth scattered far and wide. We should have left it for the archaeologists to ponder over in times to come.

He sponsored the carnival and took a percentage. This meant that senior boys were expected to lend a hand. I collected pennies from children on roundabouts and swings. I originated ‘the Moon Walk’ later popularised by Michael Jackson. I hadn’t meant to do it, but sometimes the roundabout started before I had got to all the customers. I learned about how centrifugal force can hurl you off the spinning disc in ignominious fashion, if you don’t hold on, to the great amusement of the kiddies. I collected tickets at the door of the Wee Man’s tent. He was about two feet tall. He was dressed as a leprechaun. He sat on an upturned pint glass and endured the guffaws and ribaldry of the spectators. He laughed a lot. It was probably the saddest thing I had ever seen. I applied for a transfer to the chair-o-planes.

Brother Bernard’s piece de résistence was the clothes line with one hundred pound notes pegged to it. The raffle took place at midnight….every night, ladies and gentlemen. The line was raised to much fanfare and patter, early in the evening. People came to gaze. The dreams of avarice. The pot o’ gold.  He did more for temperance than Father Matthew, because the pubs emptied out early as everyone wanted to share in the dream. They believed. It could be you. Prince Rainier, with his palace and his film stars and his glittering casino and his suave dinner-jacketed guests and racing cars and mega yachts, wasn’t a patch on Brother Bernard. You can’t fool me. I never heard tell of any clothes-line with £100 notes, fluttering in the balmy Mediterranean night air. Them was the days, Joxer. Them was the days.

Rien ne va plus

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