Ne Plus Ultra. ‘To boldly go..’

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Cape Canaveral.

To infinity and beyond!

“Yet all experience is an arch, wherethrough gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades forever and forever as we move.” That was a line we learned in school; Ulysses explaining his compulsion to voyage further and ever further.”Rolled to larboard. Rolled to starboard, when the surge was seething free, where the wallowing monster spouted his foam fountains in the sea.” One of Tennyson’s better efforts. It took the mind out of a dusty classroom on a hot afternoon, to feel the rise and fall of a deck, the crystalline blue water inviting the swimmer, the lotos land where the livin’ is easy.

Norman Mailer interviewed Neil Armstrong. He asked how Armstrong would have coped with a failure of the Moon lander. The replies were terse and practical. “I would work on the availability of the ascent engine.” Mailer probed further, exploring the astronaut’s response to the unthinkable, to being marooned on the Moon, within sight of home, with absolutely no hope of rescue and depleting supplies of oxygen. Armstrong’s responses were unfailingly technical and factual. In some frustration, Mailer looked for the emotional dimension, the reaction of a fallible human being. “Why go there at all? What is the point?” Suddenly Armstrong became lyrical. He departed from the technical manual. “Why does the salmon swim upstream?” He spoke of the human instinct to explore, to find out, to strive for new worlds and new knowledge. Mailer sat back, enthralled, like any schoolboy in the presence of his hero.

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Cape Saint Vincent.

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I was intrigued, as a child, by the inscriptions on Nelson’s Pillar in OConnell Street: THE NILE, COPENHAGEN, SAINT VINCENT and TRAFALGAR. I could locate three of them but who or what was Saint Vincent? At one time Nelson was everybody’s hero. Before the dynamiters decided to censor history with the zeal of the Taliban, Nelson stood up there, leaning on his sword, turning a blind eye to the traffic, the smog, the trams and cyclists, the scurrying commuters, the flower sellers, the religious fanatics ranting and chanting, the clip-clopping draught horses, the courting couples hurrying to a tryst at The Pillar. While Napoleon hoped for lucky generals, he had less success with his admirals. Nelson saw them all off. What was left of this remarkable little man, was brought home to The Royal Naval College at Greenwich in a barrel of brandy, to lie in state before his funeral in Saint Paul’s. I last saw the stones commemorating his victories, scattered in a yard in Kilkenny, like a giant game of Scrabble.

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When the world was smaller, Cape Saint Vincent was ‘The End of the World’, the extreme SW point of Europe. There was nothing beyond except the surging ocean, sea monsters and the fatal void at the edge of a flat world. It was here that Henry the Navigator gathered his cartographers and astronomers to ask the big questions, Where? Why? How? and What’s in it for Portugal?  Half of a New World, as it turned out and untold wealth from spices, gold, ivory, sugar and slaves. The scars from that lash have not yet healed. The caravels of his disciples, Da Gama, Diaz, Cabral, Vespucci and Magellan sailed into the Unknown.  The focus of trade shifted to the Atlantic and to a New World on the far side.

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Henry’s statue sits in a square flanked by churches and Europe’s first slave market. The Pope’s recent apology to the indigenous people of Bolivia and elsewhere, was apposite but five centuries too late.

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My brother spoke of sailing those glistening waters in Sceoling. He became lyrical, remembering days of  ‘pure sailing’. 

Last week ‘our’ vessel passed close enough to Pluto to take photographs of that mysterious world. It will sail on, exploring and documenting, until it falls off the edge or is devoured by dragons and sea monsters. Look up and wonder.

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Sssnake Charmers, Saint Patrick and Child Labour

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One small step for a saint—a giant leap for Skerries. Okay, I borrowed that from Neil Armstrong. Just follow the (giant) green footprints and you will come to Saint Patrick’s footprint indented into the rock. This is where he began his mission to Ireland. It could be claimed that his footprint has worked many miracles over the fifteen hundred and eighty three years since he returned to begin his task . It could be claimed, but there can’t be any proof, because if you tell your wish to anyone, it will not come true.

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Tradition has it that he first came to Ireland as a child slave, forced to tend sheep on a bleak mountainside for many years. It is strange that he was never declared the patron of child labourers all over the world. The problem is rife. Many economies depend on the labour of children. My parents’ old friend, John O Halloran, spent much of his life in India. He told a charming story of children working in the carpet factories. They knotted the wool into the hanging frames of hessian while the company overseer walked up and down, singing the pattern and beating out a rhythm with his cane. Their little fingers were more suited to manipulating the intricate patterns, than the fingers of adults. No doubt he used his cane to stimulate productivity. That was in the days of The Raj and Empire. That was the natural order of things, when the world existed to supply the needs of the fortunate few. The little fingers still work, but now the companies are home-grown. How else could we, the fortunate, afford cheap goods from Third-World countries? Apologists for this situation will say that if we forsook these cheap goods, the poorer countries would have no income at all. It’s the economy, stupid. If it wasn’t for bad luck, they would have no luck at all. The children of the less fortunate, have no voice.

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John O Halloran also spoke of snake charmers and the Indian Rope Trick. Don’t try it at home. The fakir (sic) climbs up the unsupported rope and disappears. He saw gurus, lamas, holy men and other fakirs (sic) levitating. He saw sacred cows and scared cows, wandering through the teeming traffic. Saint Patrick took a more robust attitude to snakes. He put his foot down. He banished the whole bloody lot of them from the island. He missed a few fakirs (sic). Using the Tom Sawyer psychology and a promise of ice-cream, I enlisted some child labour to commemorate the banishment of the snakes. We attracted a few other little volunteers…with parental permission and a caveat about paint and good clothes. We painted a representative sample of the snakes fleeing from his footprint. We suffered minimal damage to clothes.  I was charmed by their chat and enthusiasm. They were delighted to paint on something other than paper. We may tender for a repaint of the Sistine Chapel ceiling next. It could do with a freshening-up.

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So that’s taken care of the snakes. Now for the ice cream. Mike was the overseer. He sang the pattern for a proper tub of ice cream. ‘Ferrero Rocher on the bottom; ice cream in the middle; marshmallows on top of that and smarties over the lot.’  Very satisfactory.  Always consult an expert. I still have some little snake painters who have to add their contribution and claim their wages.

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Some idiot bought Saint Patrick’s Island many years ago. He proposed selling the stones of the monastery as souvenirs. Saint Patrick put his foot down on that idea. You may visit him on his island but wear good boots and long trousers or you will be stung. There are no snakes, but nettles and thistles stand guard around the ruin. It would of course, be simpler to come to Skerries tomorrow and enjoy the parade. You will have no difficulty in finding the saint’s footprint, where you can make a wish….satisfaction guaranteed…. but sssssssh!  Nobody may know. I saw an advertisement in the Sunday Times yesterday where a man is selling his twelve-foot-long Burmese python, because his wife wants the room as a nursery for their new baby. Wouldn’t you fear for the baby? Burmese pythons, he says, can grow to a length of sixteen feet.  Now there’s a case for banishment and I don’t mean only the snake.

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Definitely some ice cream required here in a hurry.