If the shoe fits


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.)


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.’


‘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.


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

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.



All grist to the mill

July photos 2013 007
Once upon a time there was a plum tree here. It became a greenfly factory. It had to go. My youngest son protested, until I let him have a go with the axe (carefully monitored, of course, as any responsible parent would.) We were left with a stump, a root and a lot more work. (He fell for that too.) This left a hole with nothing to put in it. It became a pond with fish and lilies. It cooled a bottle of wine on a hot summer’s day. It induced calm. The work paid off.

All very fine until the same young man arrived home on his bike in high glee. He had a sleeve full of frogs from the Kybe pond. This is of course, highly illegal, a crime against amphibians. I should have turned him in to the authorities. However, his jumper went into the wash and the frogs took up residence in the pond. They seemed happy enough. They were smiling. They swam the breast-stroke. They were hooligans also. Small fish disappeared. They behaved in a wanton fashion in springtime, filling the pond with spawn. It is illegal, I understand, to move frogspawn. It is illegal to put it in jam jars and and let children wonder, wide-eyed, at the evolutionary process in fast-forward. I confess to a life of crime. I trafficked frogs, tadpoles and spawn back to the original Kybe gene pool for over twenty years. I involved young people, my grandchildren, in this nefarious trade. We got it down to one last frog in a plastic container, ready for his break for freedom in a world of bulrushes, ducks, swans and pinkeens.

Six-year old Alice ran ahead, as she always does. I followed with Mike, aged three, and a frog of indeterminate age. I hollered. She ran out onto the level, green surface of the pond and promptly disappeared into two feet of black water and mud. Mike hollered. The frog got short shrift. There were no farewell speeches or good wishes. He didn’t hang around. He did a spectacular dive. I grabbed Alice and pulled her out, covered in mud and weeds. Her favourite Ugg boots spouted like oil gushers as we ran. She hollered.

Her mother became almost helpless with laughter when we arrived home. She managed to get Alice to the shower. There was more hollering. Sheepishly I washed the Ugg boots. Excuses, the Germans say, are merely explanations of failure. Alice is now a proficient swimmer and water-safety graduate but she occasionally mutters darkly about how I let her become ‘the girl what fell in the duck pond.’ She was quite amused when I incorporated her mishap into the story of another Alice, the Kilkenny ‘witch’, Alice Kyteler.

There are no more frogs in my pond. My criminal career, for the moment, is on hold. The boots dried out okay.

“Alice knew his orchard and garden well. She had loved to go there as a child and look over the low wall at the dark waters of the Nore. She watched the frogs coupling, almost inert, in the green, slimy waters of the New Quay, a narrow slot of slack water, cut between two gardens. She fished their spawn into a pail and waited for weeks to see the tiny black spots sprouting tails and then, wonder of wonders, arms and legs, even toes and fingers. But why?

Once, on a golden autumn day, she had stepped out onto the level surface, a pavement of tiny weeds. She remembered the terror of the green pavement yielding beneath her feet and the rank smell of stagnant water. Her fingers clutched the soft mud of the bottom. Even in the depths of the green darkness, she heard a shout. She could still feel William Outlawe’s strong hand on her collar, pulling her up into the air. She bawled with the shock. Her summer gown was smeared with black mud. Swags of weed hung from her hair and shoulders. She spluttered the vile-smelling water from her lips and bawled again. Her father was speechless, trying to hide his laughter but William comforted her, wiping the mud and tears from her face. He gave her to his young wife to be cleaned up and wrapped in warm towels. He plucked a peach and gave it to her to take the taste away. She blinked at the sun, at the blue sky and the high, white clouds. It was good to be alive and not lying with the frogs in the cold and fetid darkness.

Her father carried her home, holding her safe and warm in a heavy woollen shawl. He felt guilty for laughing and anxious to make light of the incident.
‘At least, my love, we know that you are no witch,’ he said, patting her gently.
‘Why?’ she asked, inevitably.
‘Because, if you were a witch, you would not have gone under.’
She pondered this for a while.
‘It’s all silly nonsense. There are no witches in the real world. Only in tales to frighten children.’ ”

The Devil to Pay. The Story of Alice and Petronilla. Hugh Fitzgerald Ryan.
Lilliput Press, Dublin. eBook Amazon/Kindle etc