Ne Plus Ultra. ‘To boldly go..’


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.


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.


A young business typhoon.

Eleanor Butler’s geography text book explained why there are no minerals in Ireland. This was Gospel. That was why we had no Industrial Revolution, no empire, no trouble at t’mill, Arthur Scargill or canaries on poles down t’pit. (You have to write t’ instead of the.) We had uileann pipes, snipe grass and endless laments. But were we better off?. As Rimbaud (French poet of the decadent school, 1854-1891) might have said, or was it the immortal Gogarty, ‘Were we ****!’ That’s James, not Oliver St. John.
I taught all this stuff for years. I read a wonderful feature about the impending exploitation of North Sea oil and shared it with my class. The North Sea as you should know, if you were paying attention in school, does not wash the shores of our fair isle. Consequently we got none of the new wealth. In fact the title of the piece was Yes, We have No Bonanzas It explained that the cost of extraction from the deep North Sea would be 10 times the cost of extraction from the shallow Gulf of Mexico and much more again than the cost of extraction on land. I did a blinder. A student raised his hand.
‘Sir. If you know all this, why aren’t you rich?’

Now that’s a tricky one. French, as George Bush reminded us, has no word for entrepreneur. Neither had the Irish language or Hiberno English. ‘Gombeen man’ was the best we could do, with all its connotations of envy and contempt for anyone who made a bob or two. They were rare birds indeed in the Ireland that I recall in my childhood. Old Mr Honda, who founded the company of that name and went on to live to a great age, told how an automobile stopped in his village when he was a little boy. Some oil dripped down into the dust. (I had a few cars like that myself.) When the vehicle departed, in noise and smoke, he crept forward on all fours and sniffed the black liquid. It was, he said, the most exquisite smell that he had ever experienced, more beautiful than the odour of cherry blossom blowing in the breeze on Mount Fuji. It determined the entire course of his life. You know the rest of the story.

The budding entrepreneur must be nurtured and encouraged. He or she must be lucky. I was lucky enough to find a harmonica. I found it on top of Nelson’s Pillar. Only ‘culchies’ climbed Nelson’s Pillar. No true Dubliner would ever do that culchie thing of gazing at the sights of the capital from the top of The Pillar. Anyway, I ran it under a tap to sterilize it. Some other culchie must have lost it. You can’t be too careful. Larry Adler said that he put his children through college on the proceeds of one tune-Genevieve. Fame and fortune beckoned. I huffed and I puffed but I was no Adler. Maybe it was limescale from the tap. The central plain of Ireland is largely composed of carboniferous limestone. This means that we have strong bones. (Pay attention at the back.) However the glaciers of the Ice Age, stripped away all the coal. The luck of the Irish.

I sold the instrument to a classmate, who desperately lusted after it. I got one shilling and fourpence. This was seed capital. My mother enquired about my sudden wealth. ‘You should not have taken that money. That family is not well off. Give it back.’
I gave back the four coppers, much to his delight. I kept the silver,’that pale and sullen drudge ‘twixt man and man’ (William Shakespeare, Englis…Oh, never mind.) I lied to my mother. Judas had twenty nine other pieces, enough to buy a rope. I bought toffee bars, in Miss Collins’s shop in Dublin Street. She also sold minerals, despite what Eleanor Butler said. I was maimed by guilt and the sense that there was something wrong in making a profit. The toffee bars were nice all the same. Time moved on. I became a teacher.

I read about a boy called O Reilly who got an orange on his First Communion day. It was during the war. An orange was a wondrous thing, a golden apple of the Hesperides. (Look it up later.) He ate the succulent flesh, revelling in the liquid sunshine of the juice. He then cut the peel into thin strips and sold them to his fellow communicants. For cash. Was he reprimanded for his enterprise? I doubt it. He went on to play rugby for Ireland (Vitamin C) and shine in business, to the point where ‘he doth bestride this narrow world like a colossus.’ ( William Shakes… Oh, forget it.)

Time passed. Somebody huffed and puffed and blew down Nelson’s Pillar. Rimbaud, the afore-mentioned French poet of the decadent school, inexplicably became a minister in an Irish government that sold exploration licences in our off-shore waters. He had them rolling in the aisles of Leinster House. Five hundred quid for a bit of sea floor! Had those oil tycoons never read Eleanor Butler? Gombeen men! That’s all they were. Pouring money down holes in the ocean floor! Weren’t we the cute ones?

Towards the end of my teaching career, some business typhoons produced a report on how education should change to suit the needs of industry and trade. None of that oul Shakespeare guff. They said that I, among others, should teach entrepreneurial skills. Hollow laughter. It gave me some ironic satisfaction to see one or two of these blow-hards in front of the Public Accounts Committee, giving an account of their off-shore activities.

Sir Anthony O Reilly, as he is now, (You probably twigged that if you were listening and not looking out the window.) is also a noted raconteur. He told a story about a tomcat who had to be neutered because he went out every night causing havoc in the neighbourhood. Nevertheless, he continued to go out at night. The owner, curious to find out what he was up to, followed him. He found him sitting on a dustbin, lecturing a crowd of young tomcats who were assiduously taking notes. The moral is that if you can’t do it yourself, become a consultant. I wonder if the French have a word for ‘raconteur’.

There is oil off our shores. If it can be brought ashore, says another entrepreneur, we can cancel the national debt. We can all drive around in Pontiacs and Cadillacs with long-horn cattle horns on the bonnets. We can caper in ‘the black gold’ like Jimmy Dean in Giant. That young lad with the orange is involved in oil exploration. Unfortunately for me, I hate the smell of oil. I can’t stand it on my hands. I won’t be drilling in my garden. I will even go to great lengths to avoid peeling an orange, although I love the taste. You have to get your hands dirty, like old Mr. Honda’ in order to make a bob. I’m probably too old for the next Industrial Revolution anyway.

I could invest my pension in a harmonica and give it another go. I could use my pension to migrate to the Hesperides, but as one hobo said to the other, ‘Who’s gonna peel the oranges?’ Does any of that answer my student’s question. Cheeky little beggar.