Mick Gargan lived in one of the white cottages on the North Strand, as shown in the old photograph on the Timeline. My sincerest thanks to the compiler of Skerries History in Photos for this treasure trove. The foreshore was, at the time, a crumbling, clayey bank. The bank was overgrown with wild spinach and weeds. There was a plant known as Elephant’s Ears, with a small, pink, rather miserable flower. Mick’s cottage was at right angles to the sea, with a small window in the gable end. No doubt it caught the midsummer evening sun, just like the modern houses that succeeded it. A modern architect would have persuaded him to open a picture window in the gable, but there was no triple glazing in Mick’s time and houses were built to shun the sea wind, arse to the breeze, like an intelligent donkey.
Like most men of his time Mick wore a suit and a long gaberdine. Encyclopaedia Britannica as late as the early seventies, remarked on the poor state of dress of the Dublin working man. Britannica knew everything, but they did not understand that a suit begins life as a Sunday ‘good suit’ and gradually works it way down to ‘working clothes’. What they observed was that Irish men had not adopted the notion of specialised work gear. A farmer would throw a sack over his shoulders in wet weather, but he still wore a suit, complete with waistcoat, (with the bottom button open, in deference to King Edward VII). There is a wonderful film of Skerries dinghy sailors of the Forties and Fifties, all wearing suits and smoking. A sail bag might be worn over the shoulders in heavy weather. No wonder everybody groaned with rheumatism and arthritis. I knew a man whose wife complained that, when he bought a new suit, he would go out and dig the garden or chop wood ‘to break it in.’ Now it’s all gortex, kevlar and sturdy denim, with knee pads for those who kneel and boots and helmets before you are allowed on site.
My interest in Mick Gargan extended to watching him when he went to gaff crabs at Red Island. He was a typical ‘oul fella’. We young lads wondered what he was doing, so we sneaked after him to find out. It was amazing. With a bit of bull-wire, bent into a hook, he pulled big red crabs out of crevices in the rocks near the low tide mark. He moved slowly and deliberately in his dark suit and long coat. He never said anything to us but now I imagine that he sensed ‘the hungry generations treading him down’ and usurpers moving in on his territory. We watched how he pulled back the weed and rooted in cracks and crevices with the gaff. Most importantly, we noted the locations of the holes. There are about a twenty good ones, that give up crabs in May, June and July. We went up to the Ballast Pit to get bull-wire from the old railway fences. Bull-wire, like everyone else, gives up under constant stress. Just keep bending it back and forth. Hammer a Hook at one end and a loop for a handle at the other and you are ready to put Mick Gargan out of business. It’s a jungle out there.
There is a knack to it. The red crab scrunches up when you invade his lair. You have to persuade him to grab the hook or get it inside his claw. It is a battle of wits. It might seem like an unequal contest, an educated, civilised, literate individual, from a species that has landed men on the Moon and split the atom, against an arthropod crustacean of limited intelligence, but more legs and claws. The crab can lie still, pretending to be a stone, but he always loses patience and makes a tell-tale sound as he tries to wedge himself further in. Let him go. Pull sharply, as he is adjusting his position and you have him. Did you see Ed Harris as the sniper in Enemy at the Gate. Patience is everything. It’s a primitive instinct to catch and eat your prey. The green crab comes out fighting. He’s an ugly, noisy customer. Don’t eat him or you will die an agonising death, or so the wisdom of ‘oul fellas’ tells us.
I could never resist wild food. The wild spinach all along the coast, is delicious, although the ubiquitous Skerries dogs might give you pause. Blackberries are everywhere. Crab apples in season, fall from the hedgerows. My brother mentioned a good crop up near the cemetery. If I am to be buried before him, I am sure that he will be, inconsolable, heart-broken, nay, devastated, but I am also sure that he will check out the crab apples if the season is right.
My old man loved wild mushrooms. After work in summer and autumn, he would become restless.
‘I believe I’ll take a ramble across the fields,’ he would say, by way of preamble. ‘Where are my galoshes?’ Galoshes were the only concession he made to rural life. He always wore his suit, with waistcoat, shirt and tie. He wore a hat, which he raised to any lady passing, including his daughters. (Please do not confuse galoshes with Gauloise, a brand of French cigarette, although they smell much the same.) At weekends he tried to get out before Jimmy Dillon, but I don’t think he ever succeeded. He always met Jimmy coming back with a well filled bag. ‘Good Morning, Corporal Dillon,’ he would greet him, letting Jimmy know that he was out-ranked. But Jimmy had once again, stolen a march. Once, when he was very old, he set off from our house to ramble along the fields as he had done for many years. It grew dark. I went to look for him. Perhaps he had missed his step and fallen over the cliff. I realised for the first time that my father had become an’ oul fella.’ No luck. I came back to the house to consult. He was there before me. There were no mushrooms, so he had thought it wiser to walk on along the treacherous cliff path to Loughshinny and take refreshment in the Yacht Bar before taking a bus home. The expedition was not a complete loss.
I have two crab gaffs. They could be fifty years old. My children enjoyed crab catching until they became sophisticated and began to frequent sea-food restaurants. My grandchildren still think it’s cool. They have demanded a map of the crab ‘courses’ before I retire completely. I have not kept up the standard of dress set by Mick Gargan, favouring jeans and old runners. I can no longer run and jump over the rocks. My six year old grandson said: ‘Grandad, your’re old, so I’ll hold on to you.’ What is he implying? Do I hear the suggestion of ‘oul fella’ in his kind offer? I know now why Mick Gargan moved so slowly and deliberately. As for those arthropods. They have, by my reckoning, thirty moving joints. They live in constant damp. They must suffer hell with arthritis. It is a kindness to put them out of their misery.
There was a young fellow who had an amazing knack for crab catching. He spurned the gaff in favour of using his hands. He festooned his jumper with his catch. The red crab will hang on through hell and high water. He always reminded me of General Ridgeway, of Korean War fame. The general wore hand-grenades on his shirt, probably as a gimmick, like Monty collected regimental cap badges and Patton wore pearl-handled Colt revolvers. I digress. This young fellow is now the C.E.O. of a major Irish company. Not long ago, after a very important meeting and business lunch, he went for a walk around Red Island, with a colleague, impeccably dressed, as befitted the serious nature of the occasion. The tide was low. When they reached The Captains, that atavistic hunter-gatherer instinct afflicted him. He took off his jacket. (A small informality.) ‘Here, hold this,’ he said, handing the jacket to his puzzled colleague. He nipped out over the rocks, his feet following instinctively, the familiar paths and toe-holds and came back with a clutch of red crabs. ‘Couldn’t resist it,’ he said. I don’t know what his good wife had to say about the state of his shoes and trousers, but I am glad to know that crab catching sartorial standards are being maintained in some quarters.
The little cottage is gone now. The foreshore has been reinforced by concrete. Mick Gargan is no more. May the light continue to shine on him for the knowledge he unwittingly imparted to three more generations.