Time and the hour run through the longest day


I looked up to this clock for most of my young life. It was on the top mantlepiece, the one most likely to wear a fine film of ash from the fire below. It was out of the reach of small children and is so again, hedged about with the same dire warnings. It punctuated our lives with its soft, harmonious chime… time to get up, time for school, time for the train, dinner time, Rosary time, time for ITMA, The Goons, homework, a story read aloud, O Henry, Joyce..( not James. His uncle. Old Celtic Romances,) The Wind in the Willows. THE PIPS..check the clock. ‘This is the BBC Home Service. Here is the News.’ Better get a move on. Look at the time! I imagined that Ratty had a clock like that in his snug little house on the riverbank. Time for bed…bong bong bong… you have insomnia. Time to get up.

It may have been a wedding present or maybe presentation. It was there before me and I treated it with respect as was fitting. My father might lift me up to see how he wound it.  It absorbed ash, tobacco smoke, piano music, yarns and jokes, arguments and discussions, French and Irish lessons, songs, some hideous skiffle crimes committed by my brother and his mates and all the little dramas of a large family. It is a ‘Witness Clock.’ The key miraculously survived to this day.This ceremony of winding has now become my responsibility. There is an element of tension involved…obviously. It was in intervention for a long time, in my mother’s house. Its mainspring was spavined by some enthusiastic winder. For many years it looked down impassively, taking no part in the proceedings.


Today is Midwinter. The sun rises far to the South. The ancients watched its progress in the great oscillation, bringing light and warmth back to the earth, new life, fertility and harvest and then Winter again. They constructed enormous stone circles to keep track of time by the stars, the Moon and by the rising and setting of the sun.  I’m fortunate enough to have a headland for Winter and islands for the Equinox and Midsummer. I also have a calendar, a watch and now again, the chiming clock of my childhood. No need to ring bells for Matins, Lauds at ungodly hours, Vespers and Compline for a good night’s sleep. Or is that Complan? No need to lug megaliths, menhirs or monoliths to the summits of mountains to catch the fleeting rays. I have been to Newgrange, beside the fabled Boyne, and have seen the amber light creep up the passageway to illuminate the burial chamber at the heart of the mound. It evoked thoughts of countless years and countless millennia, when people looked back at their lives and savoured memories good and bad and looked forward to the coming year with hope and trepidation.  Too long for my mind to grasp. It is as futile as trying to comprehend the immensity of the Universe and the ever expanding Multiverse. The moon will wobble away from us in fifty million or billion years time and we will all be doomed. Don’t worry about it. Even Stephen Hawking has admitted to the odd mistake. It mightn’t be so bad in the long run.  I came home and had my breakfast and went to work. I was probably a bit late.

We took the broken clock to Tom Black, the ingenious clock-mender, on the road from Monasterboice to Termonfeckin, not far from the Boyne.  He performed some heart surgery. He set it to rights again. On the way back we met a childhood friend having lunch with his family. We reminisced. I recalled the time my father told me to dig and rake his vegetable patch…’and get it done by the time I get home..’ He was an occasional gardener but it never lasted too long. The clock was ticking. My friend and his brother looked over the wall.  ‘are you comin’ for a dip in the Captains?’  ‘ I can’t. I have to have this dug before my Dad’s train gets in.’ (5 past 6 from Amiens Street…on the dot). They came over the high wall like a pair of Ninjas, grabbed spades and forks and set to work. We were finished with plenty of time for a dip. I may even have got a tanner for my diligence. I can’t remember but the kindness of the two lads has stayed with me ever since.

I brought the clock home and put it on a high shelf. I noticed that it was in the company of our youngest son, who arrived too late, by a year, to meet his grandfather but knew and loved his Nana for a good many good years. Beside it is  the Chronicle of the 20th Century. My father saw a few years of the 19th Century and four fifths of the 20th. He experienced the worst of it on The Somme but survived to live with those memories of barbarism. My mother saw all but six years of the century and devoted her life to education and to making things better. The clock chimed, prompting a flood of memories. Forget the ancients. I can comprehend the memory of people I have known and loved and those I know and love today. I have a new mainspring. I look forward to a great stretch in the day

You can watch the sun at Newgrange online right now but you may not see much.  Eight minutes to nine by the clock.It’s a bit overcast. I will leave it to the Druids, romantics, astronomers and archaeologists. When the clock chimes nine I shall make some tea and bestir my self and of course, the tea.


Solstice 2014. A Great Stretch in the Day.

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Solstice Vigil 2014

The sun has been around for about 13.77 billion years, give or take a few, since the Universe began. Who calculates such figures? And how?  Archbishop Ussher declared that Adam was created in 4004 B.C. six days after the creation of the world. Scientists, playing ‘the dating game’, give the earth’s age as four and a half billion years. We throw these figures around casually, as if our minds can actually grasp their significance. Only at particular times of the year do we stop and marvel at what we are witnessing. The winter solstice is one such day.We persuade ourselves that we can now look forward to bright and sunny days. We have a little way to go still, but it does no harm. We need to think positively, because January and February have yet to come. Nevertheless we will begin to look for signs of new growth. Snowdrops are a good bet, as are a few brave crocuses. This happens without the need for chanting Druids or human sacrifices. In many societies down the ages, the sun has been worshipped as a god. There is a certain amount of logic to that, if you feel the need of a god. Everything in our world depends on the influence of the sun. Too much influence and we die. Too little and we die. Too much light and we are insomniac. Too little and we are S.A.D.  I watched a sun-worshipper at the sea wall a couple of days ago. He struck some odd poses, but it worked. The sun came up. He might, of course, have been a jogger limbering up and stretching. Keep at it.

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In ancient times the Ancients were believed to have ancient knowledge of the workings of the universe. The average ancient person was overawed by such knowledge and was easily persuaded to lug gigantic rocks to mountain tops, to build megaliths and temples, to appease the sun and ensure good hunting and crops. There really was no need for all that effort. The sun has been rising in the east for xxxx billion years. I’m no Druid but I confidently predict that it will continue to do so for a few billion more, so that’s  one worry out of the way. You have more immediate concerns today and tomorrow, than incurring the wrath of the Sun God.

The photographers and solstice watchers were probably disappointed yesterday morning. The Sun God was veiled in cloud. This was not an omen. It was weather, itself caused by the sun. If those keeping vigil in Newgrange passage grave, had to rely on electricity to create the effect of rejuvenating light penetrating the gloom, they can be consoled by the thought that the electricity began from the sun. So all is well. Same time next year.

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This is my favourite sunrise, at the other end of the scale, when the sun rises behind Saint Patrick’s Island. That’s a little temple, where the monks chanted their matins at dawn before setting out to change the world. There is a promise of warmth and light. It is a sight to lift the heart.  Sursum corda. Morning has always been a symbol of hope.  On this dull December morning, I thought that I would remind you that we are in the run-in to summer. There’s a brave stretch in the day. There is. It may be by nano-seconds, whatever they are. The sun will come up tomorrow. We poor subjects of the Sun God will bask in his favour again. We will stroll along by the harbour,on long summer evenings, eat ice-cream and think ourselves blessed. Some days we are.

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June 2014

Short Shrift. Compression is good for the soul. Midwinter Day

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Father Sherwin prepared us for First Confession and Holy Communion. ‘Stick out your tongues,’ he said, ‘and let me see if you have any sins on them. No, everybody seems to be all right.’ We put them back in. It became a game. A bad sin, a mortaler, appeared as a black spot on the tongue. We vied with one another. We used pencil, because we had not yet advanced to ink and dipper pens. We had no biros in those times. Anyway, as I discovered, biros taste horrible. (High-altitude writing-sticks, they were called originally, replacing fountain pens, which tended to burst in aeroplanes. A burst fountain pen is no joke at the best of times, but potentially disastrous, when engaging the Luftwaffe. Well done, Lazlo Biro.)   Haughtons Blue-black ink  is not a great vintage either, but safe enough with a Waverley nib, at ground level.

At seven years of age you have to work hard at finding some decent sins. It transpired that we were all recidivists. We had to keep going back. ‘Ye know not the hour nor the day.’  The sins weren’t anything to write home about. In fact, home would be the last place to write to. The retribution would come more swiftly. No need to wait for the General Judgement and The Last Trump. ‘He that contemneth in small things, shall fall by little and little.’  ‘Contemneth’?  There were two brothers called Little, in the school, Gerry and Kevin, decent lads. I couldn’t understand why the catechism picked on them. I resolved, (it’s an essential part of the process,) to give up contemning. There was a big investigation once, into the burning down of a shed behind the railway station. The culprit was discovered and made to admit his guilt. The Guards were involved. This was serious.  ‘Why did you do it?’ they asked. ‘The Devil tempted me,’ he replied. What do you expect? Isn’t that what they taught us? Case dismissed.

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This is the drill. You go into the confession box. It’s dark in there. You get down on your benders. You wait until the priest is finished with the sinner on the other side. You hear the murmuring. It’s a sin to listen to the other sinner’s confession, although it would be interesting. Maybe he would have the same sins as you have. You cough to muffle the sound. You sway gently back and forth, listening to the sound of your knees. Groan, creak.  Maybe it was only the floorboards. You could play a little tune on your knees. Baa,baa, black sheep is a good one to start with.  ‘‘Rattle’. The shutter slides back. You say the prayer and tell your sins, maybe holding one or two back for next week. You get your penance and absolution and you’re out. Made it!

Mrs Corcoran warned us to go down to the back of the church to say the penance. ‘Don’t go into the seat immediately outside the box.’ I reasoned that there was some sort of a beam that came straight out from the confession box. It would cancel out your penance. (Thinking outside the box? I get it now.) You would be damned, without even knowing why. I realised, years later, that it had more to do with traffic management than theology.

There was one boy who was terrified of First Confession. He knew that it was dark inside. That wasn’t the problem. He saw people going into the box and closing the door. It closes almost flush with the wall. He reasoned that there was some sort of force that flattened the sinner, in order to make him or her, fit into the space. It must be painful.  He watched and waited. They emerged after a few minutes, miraculously restored to normal girth. Like many things to do with religion, it’s a mystery. No, it isn’t. There is a sinner-sized adjunct to the main building, outside each confession box. There is a little window, to allow a kindly beam of light to penetrate the darkness. Nothing to worry about, at all, except for the beam that undoes all your good work.

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Confession for the First Friday of every month, was mandatory. We went at twelve o’clock, a stampeding horde of sinners, anxious to be the first to unburden themselves, charging down New Street and Church Street, in a mad rush to get it over with and enjoy the longer lunch break to the full.  There was one teacher, however, who did a softening up process first. He described the sufferings of Christ in graphic and gory detail, until you felt faint, imagining the agony and secure in the knowledge that it was all your fault. I remembered him when I saw Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ.  Did nobody ever tell tell these people that less is more?

We thundered down New Street, knocking music out of the manhole covers with our rubber boots and hobnailers.  Tonge (Flange?) and Taggart, Hammond Lane Foundries, Cavanaghs of Birr, (the coldest place in Ireland) and of course, James Duff and Sons, Skerries. Each manhole had its own note. Some of them still have. There is one in Convent Lane, that has gone plownkkk  for almost a century. They still do a great job, carrying away our nameless abominations to a dark and noisome place. We read The Vision of Mirzah in school. Mirzah saw a bridge with one hundred arches. A great multitude made its way across the bridge. The furthest arches were in ruins. The roadway was decayed and crumbling over these arches. At random points there were trapdoors that opened without warning, hurling the unwary to their doom below. There were demons clutching at the travellers and throwing them over the parapet of the bridge. It’s an allegory of life. ‘Ye know not the hour etc….’  Thanks a lot, Mirzah. That’s all I need at my stage in life. The manholes stood up to our onslaught. The demons were driven away.

‘And these impure thoughts. Did you entertain them?’ ‘Ah, no, Father, but they sure entertained me.’  I didn’t hear that either.

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People will go to Newgrange today, Midwinter Day, hoping to see that kindly beam of light. I don’t fancy their chances. I took these photographs yesterday. After that we ‘tackled’ the utility room, while Paul finished painting the kitchen. He did a great job, covering up forty years’ sins against decor. I made a firm purpose of amendment. Never again will I offend with a can of paint. I asked him to help me remove a dead clothes dryer. ‘No problem,’ he said, picking it up and carrying it away. This revealed a patch of yellow wall that had escaped my attempts with Icelandic Blue, many years ago. In a dim light it looks like a beam of sunshine. I am reluctant to cover it over.

A long time ago I was in the company of a number of politicians. They were enthusing about the introduction of wheelie bins. They were people who held the fate of millions in their hands, arbiters of life and death, and there they were, talking about how to compress your rubbish. I ask you. Well maybe not millions, but a sizeable number of the good people of Fingal. They were  right.  The wheelie bin changed my life for the better. No more cardboard boxes coming apart in the wet. No more plastic bins melting out of shape from hot ashes. No more bandy-legged walks with overloaded and rusty,  metal bins, trailing garbage all along the garden path. The wheelie bin has set me free.

Yesterday I compressed the contents of cupboards and drawers. I dumped old paint tins, half full of fossilised paint; glue tubes with no lids; five thousand curtain hooks; several metres of the wrong strimmer cord, that had escaped from the package, cards from forgotten acquaintances, wishing us a prosperous new millennium; mummified carrots and a sprung mouse-trap with some late Palaeozoic cheese still in it. I applied my ten year rule: if I haven’t seen it for ten years, I don’t want it. There was other stuff that all went into the bin. I was cleansed, nay, cleans-ed. We now have loads of room for stuff that will come in handy at some time in the future, but we must fight against that temptation.

I did hear part of a confession: ‘ I went upstairs, Father. It was down in in Birr. She had only a class of an oul’ chemise on her…’ My old knee trouble kicked in at that point. I didn’t get the end of the story. ‘Baa, baa, black sheep, have you any sins?  Maybe Birr isn’t the coldest place in Ireland after all.

Hey! The sun has come out, after all. Newgrange is looking good.


The Boyne, a stream of consciousness. A Tomb with a view. High Rollers.

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The new bridge at Oldbridge looms out of the rain-soaked trees like a giant. No doubt the old bridge was once new, as were we all at one time. Not far from here the giant, Finn MacCool, tasted the Salmon of Knowledge, caught by the druid, Aenghus. Aenghus spent his life in a lonely vigil by the river, waiting for the wondrous fish. He caught it and set it to cook over the fire. He instructed the boy, Finn, to mind it, but on no account to taste it. Finn complied, but became fascinated by a heat bubble on the fish’s skin. He poked it with his thumb, as any boy would, and burned it. Instinctively, he put his thumb in his mouth to ease the pain and tasted -Knowledge. Forever afterwards he could put his thumb to his tooth and know the answer to any question. He used it sparingly. He had knowledge certainly, but no guarantee of wisdom.

A mile or two away stands Newgrange, half hidden on this particularly day, by drifting veils of rain. It dominates the bend of the Boyne where kings were buried. This part of the Boyne valley is a necropolis, with ancient tombs everywhere, where the living come in their tens of thousands to wonder at the mystery of it all. There is a melancholy glamour to the place. At mid-winter the rising sun sends a shaft of light through the ‘light box’ over the entrance, directly into the burial chamber. What does that signify? What do the carved stones signify? If, like Finn, we knew the answers, the mystery would evaporate. Newgrange would become an exercise in building techniques. It is remarkably dry inside, even after five thousand years or more. Let the experts dig and speculate. I preferred it with its weeds and thistles, as it was when I first saw it. I picked up one of the white quartz stones, strewn all over the mound and contemplated taking it as a souvenir. Then I thought of legends and superstitions and retribution reaching out from the grave. I put it back. Now the white quartz has been assembled into a facade around the entrance. It’s as good a guess as any, although there is a touch of Odeon Cinema about it.

Our young children loved Newgrange, ‘The Hairy House’ because of the grass on top. They rolled down the slope. Try it. It is exhilarating now that the weeds and thistles are gone. Be careful not to bang your head on an elaborately carved stone, or you may become part of the legend. Give your valuables into safe keeping or you may contribute unwittingly to the lost treasure of Newgrange. The tomb was plundered centuries ago, but the plunderers overlooked three quid.

Fergus found the loot behind one of the massive stones in the inner chamber. His attention strayed from the guide’s learned disquisition, as any small boy’s would. He investigated all crevices for treasure and pulled out three fresh green pound notes. He stared at them, his eyes round with wonder. He had a quick look around and stuffed them into his pocket, as any opportunist small boy would, but he could not contain the excitement of it all.
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He declared them to me. I explained that we would have to enquire as to ownership. I explained about honesty being the best policy- pompous old fart. I mentioned the matter at the ticket office. Fergus kept a tight grip on the notes. He looked up at me. I know what he was thinking. ‘You’re going to blow it, you idiot. You’re going to blow it.’ The lady in the office smiled. She told him to keep them as nobody had enquired about them. Now that was wisdom. His eyes grew even wider. He relaxed, thinking of Lion bars and ice cream..

That was a profitable day. We called in to Saint Peter’s church to light a candle for Blessed Oliver Plunkett, as you must when passing through Drogheda.. He didn’t look well. He looked like a painting by that merry, laughing fellow, Edvard Munch. The candles had been electrified. The children discovered that for one coin, you could press all the switches and light all the candles, one by one. ‘It’s very good value,’ they agreed. No wonder the Pope made him a saint shortly afterwards.

My little grand-daughter, more recently, told me the story of her pal, Oliver. The bad guys caught him and brought him down to McDonald’s, where they cut off his head. She was indignant. Some dastardly deeds have been done beside the gliding Boyne. She still enjoyed the burger and fries, though.

The Plunkett family knew the soldier poet, Ledwidge. They encouraged him to write and to enlist in the army. He wrote of home and the girl he loved and the blackbird that sang beside the mossy stone, where they met. His white memorial stone stands among thousands of others in Flanders, but his memory lives on.

There is a damson tree in the garden of his cottage near the Boyne. The damsons taste of memories. They taste sweet.

Home is the place where….

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At first I was struck by the poem, Home is the place.. by Aisha Patterson, transcribed onto a rock on the strand near my house. Whoever transcribed it was making a gift to passers-by. It is a list of aspects of home life which we can all relate to in different ways. It is worth taking the time to read it. You may think of aspects that you would add, if you could come up with the rhymes. If you can’t make it out from my photograph, you can google the poet and find the printed text.

Secondly I was impressed by the building nearby, constructed in Late Stone-Age style. It is somewhat similar to Newgrange but technologically more advanced, in its clever use of naturally occurring metal and concrete blocks. While the ‘light box’ at Newgrange captures the rays of the midwinter rising sun, this building admits light from all directions. The entrance is a major advance on the buildings of the Early Stone Age, where primitive people sat outside in all weathers, because they had not yet mastered the concept of ‘inside’. Not surprisingly, they are all dead now.
The builders of this structure exhibit a high degree of cooperation. They laboured together cheerfully, piling stone upon stone, creating a place of warmth and safety. It is likely that they have mastered the use of fire. It appears that the building is associated with the ancient, midsummer exam-results rite of passage.

I remember the hut where I learned to smoke. It was created in the middle of Bob Duff’s rick of straw bales. Straw houses are quite fashionable nowadays. We were trend-setters. Access was by means of narrow ventilation gaps between the bales. Claustrophobia was not allowed in our gang. It was a warm and safe place. At least we thought so until the roof was suddenly torn away and Bob towered above us in high rage. I can still see him silhouetted against the sky. I gave up smoking at that precise moment and haven’t touched a cigarette for over sixty years.

I got to wondering about the ‘boom years’ when a hut such as this or the straw hut in Bob Duff’s rick, given the right address, could well have fetched a handsome price. ‘Bijou home; Oodles of potential; Compact townhouse; In need of some TLC.’ You remember the jargon.
I wondered too about the equity release/shared home merchants and the property journalists who cheered them on. They bore the same relationship to homeowners as the hyena does to the herd of wildebeeste, (Have I got gnus for you!) or the circling vulture to the desert traveller crawling towards a shimmering mirage. They promised a Nirvana of endlessly rising property values, a win for everyone.
Where have they all gone, these disciples of the great Barnum? Is there not still ‘one born every minute?’ South-Sea Bubble anyone? Would you be interested in buying the Eiffel Tower, by any chance? I have some genuine gold bricks. Perhaps we could talk business.

The hut will fall victim to the winter storms. The poem will be washed away by sea spray and rain, but the true meaning of ‘home’ will endure. Thank you, lads for continuing a long tradition. Thank you Aisha Patterson and the scribe who wrote her poem on the rock. And thank you also Bob Duff for a salutary and timely lesson in preserving one’s health.