A Tide in the Affairs of Men, Latvians and Winkles.

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Teacher:”What happened after Caesar mustered his army?”

Pupil: “He peppered the enemy and took the city by assault, Sir.”

Teacher: “Sit down, boy. I’ll have none of your sauce.”

Boom. Boom.

Okay, it’s an old one. At this time of year, I always recall Julius Caesar and his account of his first invasion of Britain, D Day in reverse. Being from the Mediterranean, he had no understanding of tides, a vital component of a naval invasion. Fair enough. He was caught out once in the Rhine estuary amid straggling streams and endless mud flats. The locals helped him to refloat his ships, whereupon he conquered them and took hostages. Since then the Dutch have become the world’s acknowledged masters of tidal defences and marine salvage. It’s a matter of survival. When Julius came ashore in Kent, to go marauding inland, his ships were stranded by a great spring tide. It could happen to anyone. They were then battered by an equinoctial gale, causing extensive damage. He learned, quickly, how to ‘cannibalise’ his wrecks and build an emergency fleet.  He returned to France. Better luck next time.  If you paid attention in school,(sit up straight there and take your hands out of your pockets) you know that he did have better luck the following year, slaughtering great numbers of the enemy. The enemies could argue that they weren’t enemies until he invaded them. Nit picking. ‘Great’ men don’t concern themselves with minor details.

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A party of jovial Skerries yachtsmen set off some years ago, for a picnic on Lambay Island. They took the short route inside Shennick Island. Their boat, a twin keeled craft, sat down on the Dorn. They were stuck. The spring tide ebbed away, stranding them for hours, under the gaze of their amused fellow yachtsman. Fortunately there were no hostile native javelin throwers or careering charioteers to attack them and plunder their supplies. Julius could have explained it all to them: mountains, especially those near the edge of the world,  generate winds which in turn cause tides. The Ocean spills over the edge, maximising the pull and tug of the tides.  The waxing and waning moon sends omens to warn unwary sea voyagers. The jovial yachtsmen made the best of their predicament. They broke out their emergency supplies of wine and fine food, to fortify themselves against the gale of mockery and laughter they knew was waiting for them. Only Leo Flanagan, a Latinist himself, was angry. It was a slight on his seamanship.  The others enjoyed a Lucullan feast on the Dorn, for  a long summer’s afternoon, lampreys stuffed with larks’ tongues and good Falernian wine.

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The people to consult about tides are the Latvian winkle-pickers. They arrived about ten years ago, with changes to the E.U. rules about free movement of workers. They came. They saw. They conquered. They caused dismay to the local lads who had picked winkles on a small scale for generations. They are phenomenal workers, moving with military precision along the coast and appearing at Shennick, when the spring tides allow them to wade across. They appear to be impervious to the weather. I asked some of them about this. “We are Latvian,” they replied. “We do not feel the cold.”  They often work by lamplight, in the bleakest weather, even on Christmas Day. They gauge to the minute, when it is time to leave. It’s not easy money.

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Surprisingly, for people from a Baltic country, where tides are modest, they have adapted to the phenomenon of the tide, as surely as the creatures they collect. I have met Swiss who were caught out by the onrushing tide. It comes in like a river. We had little boys from Belfast staying with us years ago. They panicked when they woke up in the morning. “It’s gone!” they shouted. “It’s all gone.”  It came back, much to their relief. A good friend goes to the pub at the harbour to ‘conduct tidal studies.’ It can take some time. There was probably no need for the helicopter the other evening, but it was dramatic. Apologies for the shaky focus. This was not the result of tidal studies, but rather, the lack of a tripod and a photograph taken in haste. Full marks to the vigilant Coast Guard. Think what Julius would have done with a few of these machines at his disposal.

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I no longer worry about the Latvians. I shiver and go back to bed. Like the Romans, I have grown soft. I have even bought mussels from the fish shop. They don’t stock lampreys.

Ebenezer thought he was Julius Caesar

So they put him in a ho-o-ome

Where they gave him medicinal compound

Now he’s Emperor of Rome.

This is where Julius met his end. Romantics, or maybe Ebenezer and his ilk, still place flowers on the spot, at the time of the Spring spring tides, the Ides of March. Whatever floats your boat.

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Saint Patrick’s Footprint

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There is always water in Saint Patrick’s footprint, even at the lowest tide. This enables you to make a wish, but, of course, you must never tell anyone what that wish is. I have made a good many wishes there, since my father first showed it to me a long time ago. I recall him holding my left hand and lowering me down, to dip my fingers in the water and whisper the wish to myself and to Patrick. I can only conclude that a great many of those wishes came true, but I can’t remember them all. I didn’t make one yesterday, because my footing was precarious on the wet seaweed and there was nobody there to hold my hand. I had no wish either, to inadvertently join the intrepid winter swimmers of Skerries, the aptly named Frosties.

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It is no surprise that a man of the stature of Patrick should have made such an impression. There can be no argument about the fact that his arrival was the most significant thing that ever happened in Skerries or indeed, in Ireland. There will be arguments, of course. Scholars argue. Was Patrick a Gaul, a Briton, or a Welshman?  Was he Patrick at all, or just somebody else called Patrick? Legends have grown up around him. He made a giant leap from his island and landed so forcefully on the rock at Red Island that his footprint remained in the stone. I prefer that version to the more prosaic suggestion that the people marked the spot where he set foot on the mainland of Ireland to begin his mission. That is an awesome thought Fifteen hundred and eighty two years ago, a man arrived from far away to preach the Gospel to the people who had held him in his boyhood as a slave.

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The story is told that Julius Caesar, as a young man, was held for ransom, by Cilician pirates, the scourge of the Eastern mediterranean. It is likely that they enjoyed his company. He was noted for his ‘people skills’, but he promised that he would return some day and crucify them all. No doubt they laughed at his joke. He kept his promise. Patrick made the obverse of Caesar’s promise. He came without legions or  fleet.  He saw. He conquered Ireland. Who was the better man? There’s a subject for an argument.

Courage is the watchword of missionaries. Imagine approaching a Zulu kraal, armed only with a Bible. Think of David Livingstone, setting off for Africa with only an attache case of medicines to cure all the ills of that continent. On the Radharc  film series (it means ‘vision’) many years ago, I saw a young medical missionary sister on a round of her clinics among the Turkana people of  Kenya. She flew a little Auster aeroplane. The engine failed. She took out her tool-box, got the engine going again and took off  into the bush to find  her patients. I read about her in recent years. She was working in Burkina Faso, during a famine. She was in her nineties. What legend can adequately express such courage?

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His leap took him from the island on the right, Inis Phádraig, to a point beside the white wall on the left. It is still a world record.  You may stand in his footprint but you could never fill his shoes.  His name went out from this point and  scattered ‘like a wildflower’ all over Ireland and all over the world, wherever Irish people have settled.  His image is everywhere.

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Look closely at the ruined monastery on his island, Inis Phádraig, and you will see a white, ghostly figure in the window, the Bishop’s Window. It is the man himself, every inch a bishop.

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(Image courtesy of  Image Depot, Skerries)

Go and make a wish at his footprint, but be sure to get someone to hold your hand.

”   ‘Did Brother Fergal ever tell you the one about the saint and the goat?’  It was worth telling again.

The friar nodded. he had heard it many a time,  how the saint took a great lep from his island and how his footprint can be seen in the rock to this day. Didn’t he demand his goat back and didn’t the people deny that they had it? It was true up to a point, because the goat was eaten.

The butcher from next door, joined them.

‘God save you, Friar John,’ he said. He lent his ear to the story.

‘The dirty liars’, went on the tanner. ‘And didn’t the goat inside in their bellies, hear them and didn’t he give a great maa out of him?’

‘What was that?’ asked the butcher. He loved a yarn. He was, in his own way, an artist. Whenever he put a carcass to hang on the row of hooks outside his shop, he made little nicks in the outer membrane.  As the days went by and the wind and sun did their work, the nicks widened and stretched to form pleasing floral patterns, a florilegium of shoulder, brisket and haunch. He knew, by the ripeness of the blossoms, when the meat was ready. He also had come for saltpetre to add to his steeping corned beef, the best corned beef in Kilkenny.

He folded his arms as the tanner, out of consideration, began the story again. The tanner fumbled in a satcheland took out a lump of dark bread. He tore a piece off and offered it to the friar.

‘No thank you,’ declined the friar, raising his hand. ‘Fasting.’

The tanner took no offence. The ways of the friars were inscrutable. They lived by denying themselves all the simple pleasures of life, God’s gifts to men in a hard and cruel world. He spoke with his mouth full. He chuckled at the humour of the story. ‘So the good saint put a curse on them It is a fact that the women of that nation, grow beards, like any goat.’

The butcher laughed. ‘By the Lord, that would be a sight to see.’  He apologised for the oath. ”That would be a sight.’

The Devil to Pay  Hugh FitzGerald Ryan    Lilliput Press 2010      ebook Amazon Kindle

DISCLAIMER I have lived in Skerries for almost three quarters of a century and I have never met a bearded woman. This must be a legend or a vile slander put about by envious people from elsewhere.



The sere, the yellow leaf. That time of year thou may’st in me behold…..Will Skakespeare again.

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I sometimes wonder, in an idle moment, what might have happened if Hannibal had won. ‘All roads lead to ‘Carthage’. Nah! ”When in Carthage, do as the Carthaginians do.’ Doesn’t have the same ring to it. ‘The Pope of Carthage. Carthaginian Catholics.’ Ian Paisley would have had to re-jig his rhetoric.  ‘The Decline and Fall of the Carthaginian Empire. ?? Never heard of it. There would be no Romance languages, except for a dialect or two, spoken by rude shepherds on a few hills beside the Tiber. Why are shepherds always so rude?  Shakespeare would have been badly stuck for material. In fact he would have been badly stuck for words, considering that the English language is partly composed of Latin derivatives. Hollywood would have had to look elsewhere for some of its greatest epics. It is a pointless speculation, too vast for my brain at this hour of the morning, or indeed at any hour. Empires rise and dominate the world and then they fall. There is nothing permanent about an empire.

Two images on the television news caught my eye. One was the towering skyscrapers of Shanghai, blazing with electric lights. The lights of this futuristic city gleamed in the water. The other dealt with ‘Obamacare.’ It showed the poor and destitute of a formerly prosperous city, possibly Detroit, shuffling along run-down streets, with plastic bags and shopping trolleys containing their few possessions. An image is a powerful thing. The Chinese authorities would never have allowed images of such poverty in their cities, to appear in the world media.  All is success, great leaps forward, progress. I have no idea if they have a welfare service for the poor and elderly. I would welcome enlightenment.  A persistent picture of rural China is one of old people carrying  burdens, frequently bundles of  sticks. Fair play to the Americans. They admit to their failures. The Russians never televised exploding space launches.

Americans have wrangled for years about healthcare and creeping communism, as if they are synonymous. One argument seems to be that if the poor, the sick and the old are cared for, they will become strong enough to wrest the hard-earned wealth from the rich. Maybe that’s how a free market works. When Robin Hood robbed the rich to give to the poor, the poor became the rich and he then had to reverse the whole process. I spoke to a number of elderly Americans. They were preoccupied with the cost of healthcare.  They were all working, even into their mid seventies. The taxi driver was a retired college professor. I didn’t ask them about creeping communism. They had burdens enough. They didn’t look robust enough to carry bundles of sticks. It was pointed out to David Cameron in China recently, that Britain is now a small country. In my lifetime it was a vast empire. It did ‘bestride this narrow world like a colossus.’  It was a mighty edifice, but then the roof leaked. Damp rose through the walls. Slates blew away. The occupants became rowdy and kicked down the doors. They even set fire to parts of it.

Contemplation of the rise and fall of empires is too onerous a task. That old olive tree in the picture, stands beside the Via Sacra in Rome. It was there on the day that Julius Caesar walked to his death at the hands of assassins. It is a witness tree. The film Cleopatra shows Caesar, (Rex Harrison) walking towards his fate over a carpet of fallen leaves. The leaves crunch under his feet. They Floodlights and rugby, Hockey,Railway Bridge, bird notice, Shady 019

scurry away in the rising wind.  It is a powerful and evocative image but…..it was the Ides of March. March? Leaves?  Poetic licence, no doubt but a powerful picture, a portent of the tempest to come. Tradition had it that Hannibal fled to Pontus, where he was terminated with extreme prejudice by agents of Rome. Two cypress trees planted over his grave, turned aside, rather than shade the treacherous Carthaginian. History of course, is written by the winners. In Roman tradition Hannibal is the epitome of evil, the Bogeyman. Maybe the trees turned aside in order to let the sun shine on the grave of a hero.

A teacher told me about bringing a group of schoolboys to Rome. They were given a measure of freedom, with the usual caveats. One of them experimented with the local brew, with unhappy results. A frantic phone call: ‘ Sir, you better get down here quick.’

‘What’s happened?’ Where are you?’

‘I dunno, Sir. X has collapsed.’

‘Good God!’ A teacher’s worst nightmare. ‘Where are you?’

‘I dunno, Sir. Some bloke got stabbed here. That’s all I know.’

‘Stabbed! Oh God!’

They were in the Forum. The bloke in question was Caesar. Italians still lay flowers on the spot, on the Ides of March.

‘Imperial Caesar, dead and turned to clay, might stop a crack to keep the wind away.’

The Japanese,(former imperial power)  refer to retired people as fallen leaves. What do you do with fallen leaves? They did shelter the Babes in the Wood. Yesterday I got my renewal notice for our health insurance. There was good news and bad news. The bad news was that the price has gone up. I would nearly say that it has been topped up, but that is an emotive term around here. Where Shylock sought only a pound of flesh, my insurer is looking for an arm and a leg. The good news is that I am fully insured for the amputations, semi private and private in public hospitals, even though there are few private rooms in the public hospitals. There are virtual private rooms, where you pay the private rate but you are in a public or semi-private ward. Don’t ask. There is provision also for prosthetic devices, with an excess of three hundred euro per member. I am a bit worried about the term ‘member’. There is further good news. It was so good that I went out immediately, to the wind-swept forest, where Margaret was gathering twigs for the fire. She was tottering under a great burden of sticks. The snowflakes and withered leaves whirled about her. She has been a good wife and provider for many a long year.

‘Be of good cheer,’ I called. ‘I bring tidings of great joy. VHI Healthcare has covered us for maternity benefit, normal confinement. We may be blessed with even more issue.’ (Will Shakespeare used to talk like that. How did he get away with it?)

She bent again to her task, with some muttered words of thanksgiving, that I could not make out in the howling wind. I mentioned that the fire was getting a bit low and hoped that she would not delay too long. Hanging around in the open air in winter can be bad for the health. I hurried indoors to count my blessings. It was nearly time for the evening gruel. I prayed that she would not tarry unduly long in the forest.  Romance was in the air again.