The Mists of Time. The focal point.

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When I first went to school, some years ago, we wrote with chalk, on slate boards. The slate was our tablet, computer, calculator, i phone. There were lines scratched on one side to assist with writing and numbers. The other side was for drawing. The slates were distributed for certain lessons and gathered up afterwards. They made a satisfying clatter on the desks and a more satisfying clatter when a slate collector dropped a pile of them on the floor. I was quite good at drawing a white disc, starting with a dot and spiralling outwards and outwards. You blew the excess chalk onto your fellow students when the teacher was looking elsewhere. It made them sneeze. It made you sneeze. We drew houses: window, door,window downstairs. Window, window upstairs. A curving path up to the door. A chimney…teetering precariously on the roof.  Andy Radley showed me how to put a chimney straddling the ridge. It was my first introduction to perspective. There had to be smoke, lots of it curling up into the sky. I should say welkin but I didn’t know the word at the time. Apparently smoke or the absence of smoke in your drawing, is an indicator of personality.  On calm evenings, smoke and fog began to gather in the low fields. Every household made a contribution. It made for wonderful winter sunsets. Cotman, a notable English artist, attributed his love of watercolour to smog. Turner made it into something glorious.

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In the early days of our state, enlightened people stipulated that children should enjoy music, nature studies, science and physical education as well as the three Rs. It was a noble aspiration, building on the ideals of the early educators of the previous century. I take some pride in the fact that my mother formed the first orchestra in a Preparatory Training College for future teachers. She never ceased to take pride in her pupils and their achievements. She was also good at lighting a fire: ‘Get me the paper and sticks and fetch some coal and I’ll light the fire.’ No trouble at all. She struggled with wet turf and coal shortages during the forties, making a Turneresque contribution to the twilight hours.The Romans called the hearth focus, the centre of family life.  Everyone gravitates to a fire. It’s a primitive thing, keeping fear of the darkness and wild beasts away. It keeps body and soul together in the long, dark nights after Samhain. It is the indispensable metaphor for love and passion. Human warmth. Stretch out your hands and feet to the fire, but beware of chilblains. Like the writing slates, chilblains have been consigned to the past. Children sit in heated classrooms and work with computers. My grandson’s teacher, in Senior Infants, says; ‘Hocus pocus. Now let’s focus.’ It works every time. Magic words and not a slate in sight.

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They meant well, those early idealists, wanting only the best for the children of the new state, but their aspirations were cramped by lack of funds and an increasingly narrow interpretation of what education should be. By the time I got to school, most of the ‘extras’ had given place to a concentration on the ‘core subjects’, English, Irish, sums and religion. We did, however, have painting. Nobody believes me when I tell them that we chewed the ends of (used)matchsticks to make paint brushes. After a serious outbreak of arson in Dublin, Mick Carron informed me that they caught the two fellows who burned down Dockrells. ‘Who were they?’ I should have known better than to ask. ‘Maguire and Paterson.’ Even the dead matchsticks could make a haimes of a picture by sticking through the wet paper. Might as well use it to light the fire..eventually. I painted the pictures in the catechism book and worried about getting into trouble for blasphemy. Lots of haloes and clouds. I’m not too keen on the fires of Hell though. Seems a bit extreme for an all merciful and loving God. The teacher and the visiting priest were however, quite complimentary. No Hellfire yet.

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Standing on The Mill Hill, I recall the blanketing smog (temperature inversion, if I remember correctly)  and the high buildings that stood out like arctic nunataks. I learned that word later, mountains that stick out from the ice sheet. Nun attacks? Nah. The Holy Faith Convent, long gone, loomed out of the smog. So did the churches and belfries, the Munster and Leinster Bank and the Martello tower. The manager, ‘Tiny’ Callaghan was himself, exceptionally tall. I often saw him returning from the fields on a misty evening, after a day’s  shooting. I’d swear there was snow on his hat. I didn’t comment. He was armed and presumably dangerous. A lone gunman.

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Farmers used to burn the straw after harvest. It made for an apocalyptic sight, a country in flames. They burned hedge cuttings. Gardeners burned leaves. We all burned turf and smoky coal. All forbidden now. The smog swirled into the hospital corridors, following the throngs of asthma, bronchitis and flu sufferers in winter. The air is cleaner now. Bright orange lichens grow on roofs and walls. There is a nationwide ban on smoky coal. Bord na Móna will no longer extract peat for power generation. Cigarettes have gone up in price again. Houses are built without chimneys. Surely someone will invent a ‘vaping’ device for the old chimneys so that houses can look more, well, homely. There are fake-flame electric fires. You can get a video of a fire to play on your television. If he lived today, Turner would be out of a job. So would Dr. Jekyll and his evil alter ego.  Jack the Ripper would be spotted immediately if he attempted to slink about the streets of Whitechapel. I suppose we could import some smog from China, just for nostalgia’s sake. They seem to have rather a lot of the stuff.

As for nun attacks, one of the hazards of going for a walk with the Old Man was the fact that he was related to quite a few of the Holy Faith nuns. The walked in threes. He made strenuous efforts to avoid meeting them and the long, solicitous conversations that followed. He was educated by the nuns from the age of five. He spoke of how they inked in little bathing togs on the Joshua Reynolds cherubs on the cover of the hymn books. Reynold must have been a blasphemer too. I remember him leaping in desperation through a gap in a hedge on the Mill Lane. He straddled the barbed wire. The Old man, not Sir Joshua.  ‘Oh good Jesus! (Blasphemy) The bloody nuns.’ Foremost among them was his first cousin, Sister Alphonsus, a kindly but formidable woman. ‘Come back here, Tom Ryan.’ Nabbed again and trying to pretend that he had merely turned aside to light a cigarette. ‘Bloody Hell!’  With a decent bit of smog he might have got clean away, across Mick Moles’s’ field, fading into the gloom like Mr. Hyde.

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I see they caught the two fellows who popularised  bronchial disorders in Dublin— Kapp and Peterson. I think that gag requires a bit of work.

What goes around comes around. Winds of Change.

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Don Quijote saw windmills as giants, with disastrous results. For most of my life, the windmill wore only one or two feathers, hanging down, in a louche, kind of Kiowa style. Not for him the full war- bonnet of eagle feathers, tacking in the wind. He was a battered old warrior, veteran of many battles, but still, he stood defiantly on his hill, waiting for his time to come again. Saint Colmcille, our Irish Nostradamus, predicted that the end of the world would come when there is a windmill in the middle of Skerries. Who in their right mind, would build a windmill down in the middle of the town? Isn’t there a grand big hill up there with plenty of wind? It’s even called Mill Hill, for God’s sake.  But..

Prophets delight in leading us astray. Oracles and Sybils talk in riddles. ‘But I thought you meant….’ Macbeth’s witches gave him copper-fastened guarantees. They all came true, but not as he expected. ‘Security is mankind’s chiefest enemy.’ It’s a bit like the law of unintended consequences. The North Slobs in Wexford (no relation) were reclaimed for farmland. All very good. But…Wexford harbour was deprived of the twice daily tidal rush of water from this great penstock. The harbour silted up. Post-war Britain built high-rise housing and dismembered old urban communities in the process. Many of these developments stand empty, awaiting the wrecker’s ball. I saw somewhere a suggestion for colonies, built exclusively for I.T. people, rookeries of genius, on artificial islands. It will end in tiers, mark ‘ee my words.

A landscape, especially that surrounding a small town, is a palimpsest, a manuscript worked and scraped and re-worked. New boundaries and roads emerge. The fields gradually fill with buildings. New populations arrive. Children lay claim to ‘our street’ and ‘our road’. We keep a romantic attachment to the old image of rural and small town life. But… it was often cold and damp. Poverty may look romantic in old sepia photographs., but who would really want to go back?

There was a man in Skerries who applied for a new house, when the County Council built fine, solid houses along The Cabra, just beyond the Mill Pond. He was unsuccessful. He received the standard letter of regret, topped and tailed in Irish: A chara….. application unsuccessful at this time… when funds become available…. assure you etc… Mise le Meas…..name undecipherable.  He was not reassured or consoled. He took to showing the letter to anyone who would listen.  ‘Lemass,’ he snorted, ‘I caddied for that oul’ huer up in the Golf and he can’t even get me a council house.’  Maybe his indignation set some gears in motion, because he got his house in phase two.

The bad winter of 1947 awoke memories of Black Forty Seven, the worst year of the famine. I was too young to pick up on those nuances. 1947 was the year of tobogganing down   Derhams’ hill, where Hillside Estate now stands. It became Saint Moritz or Chamonix for weeks and weeks. The hill was steeper then. It seemed to a child’s eye, that the entire population of the town forgot their woes, in order to go sliding down the hill. Office workers, coming off the evening trains, threw caution to the wind, even in their business suits, to stop off for a few goes. I was struck by the spectacle at night when the few street lights illuminated the slopes.  I was also struck by a group of lads on a ladder, as they came hurtling downwards. I knew they would hit me. I was paralysed by indecision. I can recall the blow on the shins and flying through the air. I can recall my brothers’ solicitude; ‘You stupid eejit. Why didn’t you get out of the way?’ A good question. A young man picked me up and dusted the snow off me. There were no broken bones. There were bonfires on that hill when he became a priest. He then became a bishop in Africa, where he probably got no chance to go  tobogganing. By the time he retired to Skerries, the hill was covered in houses.

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There was a pit in the side of that hill, from which earth was taken, a century and a half ago, to build a mound for Holmpatrick Church to build  it above the flood plain. The pit filled with water. I learned to swim there in 1953, on another snowy day when our toboggan went further than expected. I was on the front. The first swimming lesson should not involve an overcoat and rubber boots, but I made it to the other side. I felt quite proud of myself, if a little chilly. I was in Holmpatrick Church last night and felt proud again, as my grandaughter and her youth orchestra filled the building with wonderful music

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It’s not a big mound, but it does the job, when the Mill Stream goes walkabout and escapes onto its flood plain. The old marshy Mill Pond is gone, (our pond, as it was,) but we have gained in the transaction, with two new ponds.

I once set a group of students to draw a map of the town on the school yard. The squares were already there. All we needed was the paint. Students from the various new estates corrected me. ‘No, Sir. You don’t know our estate. The road goes that way.’ Then they set to work, laughing about adventures in their secret places and who lives where, and where they played football and the boy from their road who spent Christmas in America and emerged onto their road a week later on his new bike and said: ‘Hey, Dudes, check the wheels,’ and ..and…. These were fields when I knew them. I watched and learned. I gradually began to realise that there is a windmill in the middle of Skerries. The gears are grinding again. Skerries has flowed out from its nucleus to fill the areas around the hill. Dum, dum, dum. Like a Kiowa in a John Wayne movie, that old Indian on the hill is looking down on all of us. He has his full war-bonnet on again. Head for the hills.