Identity, the crowned heads of Europe, all the king’s horses.

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I heard on the television, that the people of Cornwall, the Duchy of Cornwall, to be exact, have been granted recognition of their distinct ethnic identity——-on a par with the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish. Who granted that?  Where was it before it was granted? I’m sure they are very grateful. However, the Cornish people were there before the Romans arrived in Britain and long before the English. I didn’t know that the Irish, Welsh and Scots had been granted a distinct ethnic identity. This could catch on. It’s no wonder that the Scots are talking about independence and Irish Travellers are agitating for distinct ethnic identity. Russian speaking Ukrainians are at this moment, attempting to move a huge chunk of the country across the border into the Russian federation. It’s all about identity: language, dress, music, dance, race, religion, food, customs, land, neighbours, drink, size, ancient alliances, legends, history, poetry, ancient grievances, etc. etc…… I make that seventeen points. Woodrow Wilson relied on a mere fourteen points when he re-drew the map of Europe at Versailles. Having thrown several cats among all the pigeons, he buggered off into ‘Splendid Isolation’. You recall the instruction on the fireworks- ‘light the touch paper and retire.’

We were never allowed to celebrate Guy Fawkes Day. It didn’t happen in Ireland. It came around every year in The Beano and the Dandy. It seemed a lost opportunity to make a few bob. ‘Penny for the Guy, sir.’  It seemed like a lot of fun. Guy Fawkes was a good, Catholic incendiary, in the days when Catholics themselves were often ignited for their beliefs. It would have been treason to celebrate the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot. We used Hallowe’en and May Eve as excuses for bonfires, with the traditional burning of old beds and motor tyres. We roasted potatoes in the ashes and spat out the evil-tasting results. It’s tradition. It goes back to the ancient Celts, who introduced motor tyres into Ireland thousands of years ago. The evidence for this survives in place names containing the Irish word Ath , meaning a Ford: Athy, Athenry, Athboy, Athlone, Ath Cliath (Dublin itself, the centre of the ancient Celtic motor trade. I drove a few archaeological treasures  myself, over the years.) It’s part of what we are. In Northern Ireland it is traditional to march, make noise and insult your neighbours to celebrate the victory of a Dutch king over an English king, aided and abetted by a French king, all fought out on Irish soil. All traditions are deserving of Parity of Esteem. In the emerging new South Africa, the Rainbow Nation, the Zulus were granted the right to keep their cultural weapons.  Just try taking them away. I saw that film too.

That carving dish belonged to my grandmother and possibly to her grandmother too. It is not a heavy handed metaphor for the fracturing of Europe and the deposition of the crowned heads. It was on top of a dresser in the dining room. Our children dislodged it during a chase and nearly ‘crowned’  themselves, as my mother would have said. I put the bits in a bag, with a view to reassembling  them. They are still in the bag. There was another, bigger dish at home, as I recall. It had a pattern of little trenches and a hollow to catch the blood. (Not a metaphor for World War I.)  You were allowed to ask for the ‘bloody gravy’ at dinner time, without a reprimand for bad language. ‘ May I have some of the bloody gravy, please?’  You did get a funny look. You couldn’t extend this to the bloody spuds, the bloody cabbage or the bloody salt. The Sunday roast. It’s tradition. My father prided himself on his mint sauce;  none of that bloody commercial stuff.

Empires fragment into countries, provinces, counties, parishes and townlands, baronies, even duchies, towns, villages, neighbourhoods and streets, all with their sense of their own identity. Young lads develop a sense of their own territory. The Rush Road lads were the toughest. The Cabra lads and the Balbriggan Road lads were hardy too. The Town lads were a mixed bag. I belonged to the Dublin Road lads.  I don’t recall any serious trouble with any of them except for a few taunts and  inconclusive chases and a stand-off over a lark’s nest in the Ballast Pit. There were rules governing the taking of birds’ eggs. We arrived too late. The eggs had hatched. The chicks opened their mouths like little purses, pleading for grub and grubs. There were accusations of excessive plundering and bad form.  It was a case for The League of Nations or whatever they were calling it at the time. There was no danger of violence, because we had Ronnie Duff.  As President Higgins keeps saying, the people live in the shelter of one another.  All the old enemies are now friends. We lived in the shelter of Ronnie Duff. He seemed like an amiable giant. He could handle plough horses and drive carts. He did a man’s work at the threshing while we caffled around in the chaff. He often carried my younger brother on his shoulders when we went on expeditions, taking great care to put him down gently, for fear of stinging his feet. He scored  nine hundred runs at cricket on the beach. We wouldn’t let him declare, although he wanted to. Fortunately the tide came in and stopped play, or we would be there still. On wet days we could read the fascinating books in his house : the Daily Mail History of the Great War. There were maps and photographs. There was a General Birdwood.

My father told a story about General Birdwood. Some Australian soldiers lounging by the roadside, neglected to get up and salute the general. ‘Don’t you know who this is? ‘ expostulated a staff officer. ‘This is General Birdwood.’  A laconic Australian asked the clinching question: ‘Well why doesn’t he stick a feather in his arse, like any other bird would?’ Insouciance was part of the Australian identity. Insouciance was all bloody fine for the Australians, but out of order at Sunday dinner.

Ronnie’s family were Protestant.  Nevertheless he was our hero. The only serious discrimination I recall was when his sister, Anne, called for my sister, Anne, after tea. We were usually in the middle of the Rosary, down on our benders, praying away as fast as we could for the conversion of Russia and the release of Cardinal Mindzenty. (It worked.) Anne was allowed to sit in an armchair and read The Beano. If she chuckled at all, it was not at our culture. The Beano made the whole world kin.

We all have a romantic notion of Cornwall; pirates and smugglers; squires and mounted dragoons; slow moving excise men; houses on high cliffs with the wild Atlantic below; heroines and Gypsies on bleak moorlands. More than anyone else, even King Arthur, Robert Newton has given us Cornwall. He will have to appear on the currency, ahar! There will be no need for diligent scholars, giving night classes, to revive the ancient language. The whole world knows how to speak Cornish. Here he be in Treasure Island. Look it up on YouTube.  Bring aft the grog and relax for a moment with Long   John Silver himself.


By the way, I now live on the Rush Road, so watch it.

Excalibur, Glendalough Swim,Turf-cutting on the Featherbed, Ron

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Last Sunday we drove along Excalibur Drive, on our way to a great tournament. There were portly clerics on ambling horses, noblemen on prancing steeds, fine ladies in gilded carriages drawn by sturdy peasants, peddlers and mountebanks, thimble-riggers and vendors of sweetmeats. There was an inn-keeper playing bagpipes and a pardoner with his bag of relics. I noticed a reeve and a miller engaged in a slagging match. No, no, my imagination is running ahead of me. The road takes its name from a film, telling the story of Arthur. The knights, as I recall, clanked around in armour all the time. I think they wore their armour at the dinner table and in bed. They did a lot of quaffing. They didn’t drink much in those far-off days. They quaffed. There’s nothing like a quick quaff on the way to a tournament. Even the ladies had coifs of hair. The knights wore coifs of chainmail. Coiffing is a technical manoeuvre in mountain-biking, but more of that anon. King Lear devised a stratagem, ‘to shoe a troop of horse with felt and steal upon his enemies.’ It would stop some of the clanking, but where would you get felt on a wet Sunday morning in Wicklow? I should rephrase that.

It wasn’t a tournament at all. It was the Glendalough Swim. It has something of the colour and panoply of a tournament, without the fanfares and the clanking and clashing and shattering of lances. We had two family members taking part. We swim by proxy. It should be warmer that way but there was a draught coming down the valley. We were frozen. The water they told us, was pleasant. It is not really a spectator sport. We watched for two lads in yellow caps. They all look like masked super-heroes; Captain Neoprene. Nevertheless it was a great event, with all the excitement generated by people who love their sport. There is an extraordinary camaraderie about triathletes, cyclists, long-distance swimmers and ironmen. One percent reckon they have a chance of winning. Ninety nine percent exult in the challenge. Point nought, nought, nought percent of me would love to take part. The rest of me is content to carry the bags, shout inaudible word of encouragement and quaff copious cups of hot coffee.

Saint Kevin came there many centuries ago for the solitude. He came to fast and pray and get away from the world. So good was he at getting away from the world that his fame spread. The world came to him. A monastic city grew up around him. There must have been days when he loaded up on carbs, pulled on his wet-suit, did a long arcing dive from his place of prayer and went for a leisurely, contemplative swim in the lake. There he could achieve the detachment of the long distance swimmer and look at the world from a different angle. Perhaps he lay on his back and gazed heavenward at towering mountains, at tumbling cataracts and flying clouds and gave heartfelt thanks for being alive. ‘Blessed art thou, a monk swimming'( with acknowledgements to Malachy MacCourt.)

Glendalough retains a monastic hush, despite the tourists, the athletes, the picnickers gamely defending their sandwiches from the wasps, the mountain-bikers searching for ever more challenging hills. We dined under a tree filled with brightly coloured finches. It was like that bush in the Natural History Museum in Kensington, festooned with Darwin’s finches. Our finches chirped and hopped around, snatching at crumbs. Darwin’s were immortalised by the shotgun and the taxidermist’s art. Is there a paradox in the fact that the most ardent protectors of the wild bird habitats of Wicklow, are the gun clubs. They reckon the health of the population by the number of birds shot during the season. The grouse and the partridge thrive, while turf-cutters are hunted almost to extinction.

You do not hurry home from Wicklow. You drift along the mountain roads and stop. And gaze. I can see Saint Kevin’s point. We visited our old turf bank. We found it by instinct. The Sugar Loaf Mountain mooched along behind us. The old tracks were overgrown with heather. The cuttings were filled with water. Brown turf and green mosses gleamed in the amber rivulets. I wanted to get a spade and release the waters, to set them free from that great sponge and let them carry on down to the sea. but Zwounds! I stood unarmed on the blasted heath. A century or two ago we paid five ducats to My Lord of Powerscourt for turbary rights on a section of The Featherbed Mountain. We stood with our snivelling brood at the postern gate, with much knuckling of forelocks. My Lord’s reeve took five quid from us and vouchsafed a receipt. (The language is catching.) We went up the mountain with some friends and cut turf for the winter. A man with a BMW, cutting nearby, remarked: ‘There must be a war on the way. People always cut turf on The Featherbed when there is a war.’ It struck me that the economy must be in a bad way when a man with a Beamer would stoop to the level of us lowly peasants to win his winter fuel from the bog.

After paying for petrol, sandwiches, Lion Bars and fizzy drinks, the turf was probably the most expensive fuel in Ireland. The purists always talk about blackened kettles and tea made with bog water. Nah! Our children preferred Fanta. It fills you up with gas. You can’t work for long after lunch. More bad economics. Yet we cooked the Christmas turkey with turf from Wicklow. It seemed to taste better.

Sound carries on the bog. You can hear conversations a mile away. The children scampered around and had turf fights. They shouted and laughed. They fell in the water and laughed some more. Their voices carried. Our little turf cutters and child labourers have gained their freedom from serfdom. They have children of their own. They no longer cut and gather the turf, but their voices still carry down the years. We heard them on the mountain wind last Sunday on The Featherbed road.

So who is Ron? He sounds like a bloke. A bloke goes to work on a bike. He fixes things like radios and television sets. He watches football at weekends and has the occasional quaff in the ale house. He wears a cap. He’s a decent bloke. No, not this Ron.

Ron was the name of King Arthur’s spear, Excalibur’s poor relation. With that name, I don’t think he got a part in the film.

“I drove slowly along the mountain road with the windows down. Fitful sunlight chased the cloud shadows through the valley below, Glenasmole, where Oisín fell off the horse, after his return from the land of the Ever Young. It behoved me to go carefully. Terre verte and brown, the valley was camouflaged in the colours of the model aeroplanes that used to hang from our bedroom ceilings. Hurricanes, Messerschmitts and Lancasters and, supreme among them, the Spitfire, they swirled in a crazy dog-fight whenever the door or window was opened.
Bandit at nine o’clock, said a warning voice in my brain. Not ten feet from the car, riding the thermal with the grace and arrogance of a fighter ace, was a kestrel. He looked at me with one glittering onyx eye, gave a little left rudder, a touch of aileron and peeled off from the formation to dive away into the valley. I raised my hand to salute as he dwindled to a speck and vanished from my sight.”

On Borrowed Ground. Hugh Fitzgerald Ryan. Wolfhound Press.
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