Radio Days. Imagination and The Force.

captains waves electricity 058

Flanagan’s Force

To peer at the glowing valves in the back of an old-style wireless was like looking at a futuristic city, the sort of place the Treens lived in on Venus. You could imagine them flying from skyscraper to skyscraper in their machines and The Mekon of Mekonta hovering around on his brain-powered tea tray. The Treens were almost human, although green but The Mekon, also green, was practically all head. The Treens obeyed his every command because he was so, well, brainy. I really wanted one of those hover trays but I wouldn’t have had the brain power to drive it.  After a certain age the ability to fly through deepest space in a cardboard box or on a bin lid, powered by imagination alone, sort of deserts you. You may of course, sit in the box and make appropriate noises but long before you reach Alpha Centauri, your family will have sent for the good people in the white coats. When adults are described as ‘well grounded’ it is considered a compliment, not a disability. We Earthlings are unavoidably ‘earthbound.’

You might see the Manhattan skyline, all lit up and buzzing with energy. That was where so much music and talk came from. By reaching around to the knob at the front, you could cut off the energy. Wheeeoooo chunkk! Manhattan died. Turn again and the city came back to glowing life.This was a guilty pleasure as we were expressly forbidden to interfere with the wireless. Even the smallest valve is vital to the life of the whole apparatus. The Old Man might have to go down, in high dudgeon, to Oisín Thornton’s shop for a new valve, or to Bernie Clancy to have the whole blasted thing repaired. High Dudgeon may sound like a charming little village in the Cotswolds but it isn’t. My Old Man was there on many occasions. It was not a tranquil place at all. Certainly not in 1940 when his wireless exploded with the surge of the new electricity. The Force was not with him on that occasion. Blasted E.S.B. At least I wasn’t responsible that time.

Christmas,sun room, ESB 025

Grid Force

Static was the curse of radio, as it came to be called. I believe that the fizzing and flickering on old televisions after ‘shut down’ is the echo of The Big Bang, the reverberation of the creation of the ever expanding Universe. If so, the Big Bang must have occurred somewhere near Skerries, because we got it all the time on radio and later, on television. Amateur wiring and dodgy DIY fuses probably didn’t help. Multiple adapters from a single plug created the perfect electrical storm. Nevertheless the static emphasised the wonder of the whole business. Practically every programme sounded like a dispatch from Nazi occupied Europe,where some brave resistance fighter pedalled  furiously on a bicycle-powered generator to send vital information over the airwaves. Fine tuning was required to locate your favourite programme through the blizzard of static. The needle jerked along the dial from Athlone to Hilversum to Frankfort in search of a clear signal. The needle was powered by strings winding around little wheels. There was a green tuning ‘eye’ that promised clarity. We lived in hope. Sometimes it paid off.

Tulips boys in chair 007

Force filched from the wind

Always at breakfast time, we got Dvorak and his Slavonic dances from the Home Service, courtesy of the BBC Northern Ireland Light Orchestra. There was Lift Up Your Hearts, a short inspirational talk just before the eight o’ clock news. One of the themes remained with me:……..a clergyman in some far-flung outpost of Empire saw a young shipping clerk supervising coolies as they carried bags of rice up gangplanks and into the hold of a freighter. The sun was hot, even in the early morning. The young man, clad in white, with his sola topee and clip board, was tallying the bags as the coolies struggled up the plank and ran back down.  “Juldi! Juldi!” said the young clerk by way of encouragement. The clergyman saw him in the late afternoon, still tallying and encouraging the sweating coolies. The young man looked exhausted. Even the mad dogs and all the other Englishmen had taken refuge from the heat. ‘”You’ve had a long day,” I said. “Keep your chin up”. The young man smiled in response. He straightened up and carried on with renewed vigour. It is amazing how even the simplest kind word can make such a difference.”‘ He never thought to lift up the hearts of the coolies. Blasted natives. “Juldi! Juldi

The Old Man always encouraged us in the morning: “Get a move on. There’s Lift up Your Effing Hearts. Get out of bed and get off to school.” He improved after a cigarette and a cup of tea. Piiip! Piiip! Piiip. Eight o’clock. Boots on the floor. “Here is the News.(in no particular order)…..Korea, Mau Mau, Cyprus, death of Stalin, The Middle East, (always The Middle East,)King Farouk, Nasser, Suez, Hillary and Tensing, Glubb Pasha,Makarios,Kenyatta, inflation, Budapest, Cold War, Kashmir, Bikini atoll and the hydrogen bomb…” That was before ‘bikini’ took on a new resonance to disturb the tranquility of growing boys. They were only talking about nuclear devastation  and the end of life on Earth.


Sometimes there was good news; news to make young lads, leave their breakfast,  jump up and down and yell in sheer delight. Sixty years ago, almost to the day, through the firestorm of static, all the way from Melbourne, came the commentary on the Olympic 1500 metres final. The ‘man from Eire’, Ronnie Delaney came through the field, the greatest milers of the day, Landy, Hewson, Lincoln, Tabori and a handful of luminaries, to carry off the gold medal for Ireland. In the apparently relentless and grim Fifties, his achievement stills shines out. The Force was with him that day. I still cheer when I see it on video.

I think it was even better though, on the wireless.

A lad worth his salt.


” If any schoolmaster or clergyman requires a prize for a lad of grit, or a boy who is worth his salt, he can do no better than G.A. Henty.” Indeed not. When I went to secondary school, to The Brothers, I was impressed  by one or two things: I had to wear long trousers; the electric lights worked; Brother Malachy gave out books on Saturday mornings.

The trousers were tricky. I was used to short trousers, but the east wind blew around the extremities, too cold even for a lad of grit. Usually corduroy, they had turn-ups– the long trousers, not the extremities. You might find a coin in the turn-up, if you were lucky. It was usually a coin that you had mislaid; one that you had searched for; one that had caused you to look with suspicion, at a sibling, especially if he had the tell-tale signs of toffee about his gob. But there it was, the tanner, the foundation of your fortune! If you were lucky enough to have the use of a bike, you had to gather the turn-ups into your socks or clamp them in a bike clip. Otherwise they caught in the chain, were covered in oil or mangled to shreds.There were small bike clips, that worked on the principle of paper clips, but that meant that you had to imprison four thicknesses of corduroy in a little clip at the far end of your leg. It took some getting used to. I contemplated going back to short trousers but the trials of the adult world had to be faced. You could, of course, roll the trousers up to half mast, but you would look gormless. I noticed though, that when Empire troops occupied the oilfields of the Middle East, they wore shorts. Had the War Office no bike clips, or would you need them on a camel? Anyway, their trousers were safe from all the oil. They looked a bit gormless though, didn’t they?


Brother Malachy knew The Shah when he was in exile in Mauritius. The Shah, that is. Maybe Brother Malachy considered himself in exile in Skerries. He was a cosmopolitan Irish-Scot. He had seen the world.  He laughed at our notion that Skerries is the centre of the universe. He quoted an old guide book: Skerries is a small fishing village, about three and a half miles from The Man o’War. Damn cheek! This means war. He laughed at our notion that the Irish are the bravest people in the world. He told a story of travelling by rail in France and how he got talking to a Gascon on this very subject. “Ah,” said the Gascon. “Voila!” He thereupon climbed out of the window of the hurtling train and hung down to knock on the window on the other side. He climbed back and in the window. “Now it is your turn, mon frére.”  Brother Malachy declined, yielding the palm to the men of Gascony. He was short and corpulent and would not have got through the window. He gave us The Three Musketeers to underline the  point.  There were really four of them, if you include D’Artagnan, the fiery Gascon, and they never used muskets.

“Did you never tap The Shah for an oul’ gold-plated Rolls Royce, Brother?” The Brothers took a vow of poverty. A lost opportunity. The Shah had half of the world’s oil. He had medals to beat the band. He wanted to keep the benefit of the  oil for his own people. This brought him into frequent conflict with The Empire. Damned foreigner! G. A. Henty would have sorted him out.  Send in the knobbly-kneed troops. With Kitchener to Kabul. With Kitchener to Khartoum. With Younghusband to Lhasa. There was always a lad of grit with the army. I wanted to be that lad, but I didn’t want to wear a gormless pill-box hat like Younghusband’s. Had he no Youngwife to keep him at home? I wanted a solar topee, a pith helmet, like a proper imperial soldier. I wanted to live in a world of elephants and punkah-wallahs and orders echoing around a parched frontier parade ground. He gave us Manco, the Peruvian Chief, a story of one brutal empire giving way to another, the romance of conquest and the wonder of Spanish America. There was another one: Discoverers of the Great West, by Francis Parkman. It was largely the story of La Salle and his epic voyage down the Mississippi from Canada to The Gulf of Mexico, two hundred and fifty years before Huckleberry Finn set out on his raft, with the slave, Jim. Now, that’s a great book too. Treasure Island, Ah, Jim, lad. Kidnapped, young Davie Balfour.    When la Salle reached the Gulf, he claimed the land for France and gave rise to New Orleans. He didn’t set up bordellos or jazz bands. He and his company sang a Te Deum Laudamus in thanksgiving for their safe arrival. No, he had nothing to do with the De la Salle Brothers.

Malachy taught us to think. He taught us to sing… The ashgrove how graceful…He taught us to look outward. He taught Geography.  (New Orleans is about four thousand miles from The Man o’ War.)  He taught us to express ourselves. He gave us an exercise in writing descriptive language. I wrote about leading my troops through the forests of the Ozark Mountains. He praised it highly, suggesting that I might have lifted it from Fennimore Cooper. I didn’t, but I took it as a compliment. I made it up, mainly because I have never seen the Ozark Mountains, nor have I led any troops there, or anywhere else, not even Omdurman or Rorke’s Drift, to do battle with foreigners. I would be a sore disappointment to G.A. Henty. (I have eaten some grits. The people of The Ozarks and Appalachia are said to be very fond of grits.)   In extenuation, by the time I was old enough to conquer new colonies, the Empire had melted away, like snow off a ditch. They put Dev in prison and Makarios in The Seychelles. They tried the same intervention with Kenyatta. Being imprisoned by the Empire became a badge of honour and a necessary qualification for political life. You can get a medal for it. Idi Amin had more medals than even The Shah.

Brother Malachy hunted monkeys in Mauritius and ate them. “What were they like, Brother?”  “They were like babies. heh heh.”  “No, what did they taste like?” I forget the answer to that. I hope it wasn’t the same answer. I would remember that.  He saw the fishermen drawing fish on long lines from the vast depths of the Indian Ocean. “Their eyes would POP out of their heads.” It had to do with atmospheres and pressure. This was before scuba diving and bathyscaphes  and Ballard. Not only is the world a wide place, but it has depths unimaginable to schoolboys in a draughty classroom.

The electricity worked. We had storage heaters. We sat on them during break time, at severe risk of vascular complications in later life. A good job that we wore long trousers. Jack Doyle, a much respected Skerries teacher, used to  work in his brother’s pub in Castledermot during the summer. Maybe Jack felt that he was escaping from exile for a few months. He loved the chat in the bar. It was the time of rural electrification and myxomatosis. “Is there any of that oul’ myxomatosis up around your way?” A new word. “I dunno, but they’re puttin’ up poles for somethin’ ”  Jack didn’t explain. He was off duty.

We had fluorescent lights. They kept the S.A.D. at bay during the dark winter days, a giant leap forward from National School. Brother Malachy opened some windows for us and pointed to a bright new future. “Tautology!. Don’t be stupid, boy.  Of course the future is new.”

Our grandson will be confirmed today. It will encourage him to face the future.  I hope he gets a medal. He deserves one already.