Marbles and balls of steel. Fingal County.


There was a hierarchy in the world of marbles. There was an established rate of exchange. The lowliest form of marble was the ‘meb’ (rhymes with’ pleb’ a derivative of a Greek word meaning the common multitude.) They were made of clay, generally brown in colour and could be mistaken for aniseed balls. A meb had to strike a superior marble numerous times, before victory could be claimed. Likewise in swaps. The meb was like the low-number cards in a pack, in comparison to the royal cards. Mebs were almost a cause for shame, except that, in the hands of a skilled operator, a meb could win the treasured glassiers or taws. A meb could not expect to defeat a steeler. It would be like a low-born villein entering the lists, to challenge Sir Launcelot, before the lords and ladies of Camelot. Avaunt, thou varlet. Get thee hence. The taw was a giant meb, made of ceramic. It was an ugly thing, about the size of a gob-stopper, but it had added value, because of its size. In the world of marbles, size matters.

Glassiers meant the world to us. Nobody had seen Earth-rise, in those days, but we had marbles that looked like Saturn, without its rings, Earth with its swirling clouds and deep blue oceans. There were opaque ones that seemed carved from ivory and nacreous ones, carved from the inner recesses of the pearl oyster. You could carry the whole solar system in your pocket on the way to school and lose it all on the way home in a long game of follier-uppers. I think I started to lose interest in marbles when a cheap glassier came on the market. It was a sphere of clear glass with a shard of colour inserted. Technically, it had the same value as a real marble, but I could not accept imitations or imposters. I don’t know how marbles were made, or who made them. I still can’t envisage how they could be formed to such perfect spheres, without a sign of a seam or the marks of a mould.

There was a belief that steelers fell from trains. They popped out of the bearings and could be harvested along the railway tracks. Like Johnny Cash, I walked the line. I kept a close watch, but I never found an oily steeler nestling beside a sleeper. I looked in the boxes of axle grease. It must still hold the world record for vile smells. Whooo! The grease heated up with friction and seeped down onto the axles, like an elephant in must. There were no ball-bearings on the trains,  in those days, or so I am assured. The grease lubricated white-metal ‘bushes’. Look it up, yourself. I have enough problems.  Steelers came from the garage. You could get them if you knew someone with a garage. No joy. The Swedes made the best steelers. They smuggled them to the Allies, during the war, in high-speed launches. They went into the moving parts of tanks and military machines. They enabled gun-turrets to swivel and aeroplane propellers to rotate. If you could get to a battlefield you could get loads of them. Without those Swedish steelers, the war would have been lost. The Skylon, symbol of The Festival of Britain in 1950, balanced all its enormous weight on a single (British) ball-bearing. Just goes to show…something. The steeler was the A Bomb of the marble world. It was the armoured war-horse, the Big Bertha. With a steeler you could blast the opposition into oblivion…. unless, of course, an assassin with a meb and the hands of a gunfighter, arrived on the scene. You could be ‘Rooked’ (pronounced ‘rooooked’) by a steeler.

There has been some discussion recently as to why the councillors of Fingal County did not vote themselves and Fingal into oblivion, by facilitating a return to a monolithic Mega Dublin.  Fingal has an ancient identity, going back to the time of the Vikings. It is worth retaining. Fingal is a small entity in the context of The Greater Dublin Area. Although the ‘default setting’ with regard to any form of government or politics, is a protracted sneer, Fingal County has been a success. Its councillors are accessible. All politics is local. Matters got lost or concealed in the greater County Dublin. We know the history of the scandals. A ‘foot-soldier’ councillor explained the modus operandi for getting some unpopular item through the planning process, in a particular area: the councillors from the relevant area opposed or abstained; councillors from remoter areas voted in favour, as directed. There were no electoral repercussions.

There was a small marsupial creature, who boasted that he had balls of steel, scurrying through the undergrowth of Dublin County Council. It all happened far away, in O Connell Street and in Conways’ pub. He dispensed largesse from his pouch, in brown envelopes, at the behest of the bigger political beasts.  He greased the mechanisms and quite a few palms. There was a resounding clatter in Dublin Castle during a planning tribunal when his much-vaunted steelers hit the floor, under the basilisk gaze of Justice Flood.  Some light was let into the jungle. Some big beasts were flushed out. I went to the funeral of my humble foot-soldier. He got out, just in time. One of the big beasts, noted himself, for digging up trees in areas that displeased him at election time, delivered a eulogy. It was in March, when the crows and the rooks begin their housing developments. They took (grave?) exception to the intrusion. They set up a clamour of protest. He was annihilated.  He was well and truly roooked. The rooks were more eloquent in their criticism, than the gullible electorate of County Dublin. He wasn’t a steeler in the great scheme of things. He was only a taw. Justice Flood was the genuine steeler. Keep it local.

Losing your marbles is a hazard of getting older. It is usually conveyed by a circular movement of the finger at the temple and a knowing look. You lose track of things and get the wrong end of the stick. You lose the thread of your..of your.. em, argument. Couldn’t happen to me.  The Greeks lost their marbles to Lord Elgin. They are in the British Museum. I went in to have a look.  There were no steelers or even a few decent glassiers. There were only a few oul’ statues with bits knocked off them.  What was all the fuss about? I went out and had some lunch. They do a nice crayfish salad in the atrium. Now that’s worth a look. I mean the atrium… and, in fairness, the crayfish.


The museum has one item that I would happily steal; a little, inscribed Anglo-Saxon brooch. Aelwyn owned me. May God own her. Simple, a treasure, a person, eternity all encapsulated in a phrase. I would trade all my marbles for it… if I hadn’t lost them all many years ago to some Greek fellow.

Skerries National School about 1947. The wrong end of the stick.

Step together, boldly tread

Firm each footie, wrecked each head.

Let these Cajuns  quick and clear,

Sound like music on the ear.

Steady boys and step together.

Form like deer on mountain heather.

Left, right, left right .

Steady boys and step together.

Left, right. left, right,

Steady boys and step together.national school circa 1947 012

We sang this song while marking time on ‘The Line’, before marching around the yard and back into class. It should have been ‘erect each head’ but that was how I picked it up. ‘Wrecked each head’ makes a kind of sense. There were no Cajuns either. ‘Let each cadence’…whatever that meant. I quite like Cajuns, with their spices and their wild fiddling. A close inspection with a powerful lens, may disclose similarities to the stance of deer on mountain heather.

I recall the day on which this photograph was taken. I can see the photographer setting up his enormous wooden camera. It stood on wooden legs taller than any of us.. The photographer, a small stooped man, stooping being part of the art, went in and out of a black tent, making subtle adjustments. Sometimes he came out front and changed a lens. ‘Don’t move,’ he warned. We froze.It is difficult to hold a pose or an expression. ”Don’t move,’ said the teacher. We trembled. Nobody said ‘Smile,’ on one of the happiest days of our lives. It was an anti-climax, a click and dismissal back to class. ‘Don’t talk,’ said the teacher. We didn’t.

People have remarked on how sad those little boys look. Some are wary, as if anticipating the trials that life was to set them. One or two are almost smiling, ( against regulations.) They are still smiling, cheerful men by nature. I should tag the boys in the picture, by name, but that’s a trick I haven’t learned yet. I will have to ask my grandchildren. So here goes:

Front row, from the left; 1 Gerry Ellis,2 Terry Doyle,3 Don’t know,4 Hugh Canning,5 Eddie Hughes

Second row.  1 George Hand. 2  ? McGealy 3 ? Ellis 4 Paddy Landy 5 Hugh Ryan 6 Jimmy Coleman 7 Harry Loughrey 9 Don’t know

Third row. 1 Paddy Griffin 2 John Grimes 3 Frank Dillon 4 John Tyndall 5 Don’t know 6 Basil Bissett 7 Brian Beggs 8 Johnnie Casey

back row. 1 Denis Ryan 2 Philip Ryan 3 Don’t know 4 Andy Radley

I am open to correction on these names. Put my mistakes down to the passage of time.

The thing is, I do know the boys, whose name have slipped away from me. They were all important people. They brought news every day and arguments. We had fights and hotly contested games of marbles and conkers.  We wore short trousers and shivered when winter came to our badly heated classroom. We wore blue stuff and violet stuff on knees, fingers and toes, for scabs and chilblains. You never see chilblains nowadays. I believe they were the product of inadequate diet. Hugh Canning had a special prayer for success. He said it quietly before a game of marbles. He very generously told it to me, but I had not faith. Deep down I felt that the Lord God of all the Universe, Who daily governs the movements of the heavenly spheres, should have better things to do with His time than weighing in to a game of marbles. Did God really care who had the most mebs, glassiers, taws or steelers? Hugh cleaned me out every time. I wish I could remember that prayer.

Look at the little boy on the left,  in the back row. He was not in our class, but he was let come into the photograph, because he couldn’ t be separated from his older brother. See how he is clutching his brother’s arm.  They lost their father in an air tragedy. They faced a cold and harsh world together. Paddy Landy did not have things easy, but he made a lot of music in his time. I picked spuds with Jimmy (Apple) Coleman. He would always say, ‘That’s a brave day.’ He taught me a lesson. There was a spud fight. Jimmy objected strongly to the waste of food. ‘You’ll folly a crow for a spud some day.’ In later life, Brian Beggs always addressed me as ‘young Ryan.’ I came to appreciate that greatly. Paddy Griffin would drop in over our garden wall, with plans for expeditions to The Cane Wood or the island or for making a soap-box car, or going to the threshing or investigating the Ballast Pit.  Johnnie Casey brought Spanish chestnuts from Argillen. They were green, sour things. I didn’t know that you should roast them. They were exotic, so we ate them anyway.

Yesterday was All Souls’Day. Rain beat upon the window. Dead sycamore leaves whirled about in throngs. They induced melancholy thoughts.  On All Saints’ Day I had attended the funeral of a lady who had devoted her life to God, to the education of deaf children and to music. The church was filled with elderly ladies of a similar vocation. I felt sad for them. In the modern world they see their life’s work denigrated by suspicion and resentment, or mocked  and trivialised by the strident coarseness of the hen-party. I felt winter closing in again. I looked at the photograph. Quite a few of those boys are gone.

Then I remembered the laughs. I heard our voices chanting Tables. Do children today learn tables by heart ? Is it all done by the magic of electronics? I heard the songs we learned from Jack Doyle. Irish songs..Slán go Deo le brón is buairt  Farewell forever to grief and sorrow…..I always wondered who Joe was.  Maidin i mBéara, sung to the tune of Danny Boy. I was prevailed upon to sing an Irish song in a pub full of Welshmen, look you. ‘Sing one of the ones that Jackser taught us.’ I dredged it up from the pit of memory. My voice has cracked. I could never reach that high note near the end. I did my best. The Welshmen smirked. One of them stood up immediately afterwards and sang Danny Boy. He sang it to perfection, in a pure tenor voice, a voice that surely rang through the valleys and in the chapel, see. He hit that high note bang on. He sat down to loud Welsh applause, studiously not looking in my direction. He was very good. Welsh prat.

I remembered the games of Bulls, which entailed chasing and crashing into people and Broken Gates which entailed chasing and crashing into people. I remembered comics, read furtively under the desk and sweets and jokes and all the important things we discussed. Maybe things were not so bad. I taught a good many of their children over the years. I often saw the fathers I had sat beside, in the faces of their sons.

The sun came out. I felt better. I still know my tables. I know a few songs and some shreds of poetry. I’m not great with technology, but there is always someone who can help. My three year old grandson showed me a game on his mother’s i-phone. It was less violent than Bulls.  He knew how to work it. Nobody taught him. ‘I will ring you on Skype’, he said when they were leaving. It’s a brave new world.

A friend took me for a flight in his helicopter. We flew over Wicklow. There they were—deer on mountain heather. They stood tall and proud, just like my classmates in The Nash in 1947.