Sex, Lies and Gunpowder.


In the run-up to the last Iraq war there was much talk of ‘sexing up’ a report on Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. Hans Blix, the U.N. investigator, said that there weren’t any. What kind of sex did these people engage in? Patient and rigorous investigation isn’t ‘sexy’, especially if it undermines the case for war. Did you find George Bush, Tony Blair or Alastair Campbell, ‘sexy’? By this reckoning, smart bombs, helicopters, plutonium-tipped projectiles and all the paraphernalia of war, impart a perverted sexual thrill, at the thought of all the people who can be killed. Power, it is said, is the ultimate aphrodisiac. The reality takes place perhaps far away or far below. Arafat, (definitely not ‘sexy’,) spoke of his one hundred young girls selected to be suicide bombers, as his ‘army of roses.’ Maybe they had to hurry on ahead to Paradise to get ready for the martyrs. ‘Sexy’ or what?

There’s O Connell, the Liberator, still dominating the bridge. He relied on words and brains to achieve his ends. He lost his street cred in old age when he cancelled a ‘Monster meeting’ at Clontarf, largely because the guns of The Pigeon House fort across the water, had been trained on the crowd. Think of the martyrs he could have rallied to his cause with a good massacre. Hundreds slaughtered in famine-stricken Ireland!! If he had had a good press secretary, like Mr. Campbell, he would have been home and dried. The baton passed to the ‘physical force’ tradition. As that smiley man, Chairman Mao,asserted: ‘Political power comes out of the barrel of a gun.’ Nelson, an ardent lover with what was left of him, would have agreed. He stood just around the corner from The Gunpowder Office on Bachelors’ Walk. Was that a phallic symbol he was standing on? Can’t have that in holy, Catholic Ireland. Draw your own conclusions and no sniggering, please.


The Chinese, of course discovered gunpowder, a mixture of saltpetre, charcoal and brimstone in certain proportions, to bring about an explosion. They used it for fireworks and for war. The 13th century Franciscan, Berthold Schwarz gets the credit for introducing it to Europe and everything has been great ever since. You can use the stuff to move mountains, celebrate Hallowe’en or dominate your neighbours. You can become a hero, a great statesman, a rebel/anarchist/revolutionary, giving the two fingers to those you don’t agree with, if you have enough of it. You can become a bloody menace to society if you mishandle it, as the dreadful explosion in Tianjin shows. Pearse admitted that  some of the wrong people might be killed at first….Lenin went for mass slaughter. It takes practice to get the hang of it. Interestingly, Lenin listed the bourgeoisie, school teachers and other intellectuals as candidates for liquidation in this mass extermination. I don’t know, as a former school teacher, if I should feel flattered.


It may well be apocryphal but the story is that, at Agincourt, the French High Command, directed that any English archers taken prisoner, should have the index and middle finger of the right hand chopped off. This was to avenge the scandal that a low-born man could strike a noble knight dead from afar. Comparable punishments were to be inflicted on gunners using the detestable material, gunpowder. The only respectable way to slay an enemy is in hand to hand combat, according to the customs of Chivalry. Ee I Addio….we won the war. It seems that these low-born varlets delighted in showing their two fingers to the defeated French. Considered to be very rude nowadays…rude peasants…rude forefathers. There are some families in Wales still drawing a pension for their forefathers’ service at Agincourt, but keep that under your hat… where the same ancestors kept their bowstrings in wet weather. Did Shakespeare ‘sex-up’ Agincourt 1415?  The Herald of France put it more succinctly…’, No, great king/ I come to thee for charitable licence/ That we may wander o’er this bloody field/ To book our dead and then to bury them/To sort our nobles from our common men…’ Agincourt 2015. Sounds like a festival, with gurning politicians speaking about heritage and tradition and soldiers rattling sabres and gesticulating with rifles. Guards of honour and artillery salutes….the works.


God save the mark!

An interesting suggestion was made in America, where people love their guns. Arm the teachers. That would put a stop to the random massacres in schools and colleges, perpetrated by people unbalanced with a sense of power or grievance. Fortunately I never carried firearms to school. There were days….There were days….youghal doneraile spenser's castle 049

I think I would have fancied one of these.

When Gulliver boasted to the King of the Giants, that he could show him how to compound gunpowder and make cannon to blast down the walls of the mightiest cities and tear apart the bodies of the wretches hiding therein, the King was enraged. He warned the ‘insect’ Gulliver never to mention it again, on pain of death. Seemed like a sexy idea to Gulliver.

No need for it now anyway, since Tony Blair became Peace Envoy to The Middle East. How did that go, have you heard? Probably count his successes on the two missing fingers of some Welsh archer.





Floraville, An Tóstal and a cause for celebration.

Floraville 2009


That unprepossessing green patch, Floraville, half way along Strand Street, was so ugly that a wall was built to hide it from view.  Google earth can transport us back in time to—2005. My memory, however erratic, can do better than that. I recall Floraville when there was a house of that name standing there. In 1950, a mere five years after the War and only three years after the terrible winter of 1947, Ireland determined to go en fete, emerge from the darkness of the Forties and develop a tourist industry.Villages and towns throughout the island, began to organise festivals and events to lift the gloom. This didn’t happen by government decree. It happened because civic-minded people got together and worked for the benefit of their fellow citizens. A major Irish industry enjoyed an immediate revival…scoffing and ridicule. People of a certain age, remember The Bowl of Light on O Connell Bridge, immediately renamed The Tomb of the Unknown Gurrier. Somebody threw it into the Liffey. The gurrier is alive and well.   Steinbeck once remarked, on seeing a man rescuing a statue from a canal/river, (Erratic memory)  that there are two kinds of people, folks who throw things into rivers and  folks who pull things back out again.  Very occasionally you will see an old, cast-iron, An Tóstal road sign with the stylish, female harp, an early symbol of Ireland. Your best chance of seeing one nowadays is in an ‘Irish’ pub, somewhere abroad, possibly stolen by some gurrier.

We always say: “They should do something about that.” The Floraville Committee members were that ‘They.’ There was a flag pole, giving the house a semi-official standing. They organised events in the old house, lectures, classes in music and dancing, slide shows, exhibitions, club meetings  and whist drives. On Saint Patrick’s Day, The Skerries Brass and Reed Band started from there. The Graduates, a popular showband, practised there on Sunday mornings, their music occasionally adding a lively beat to Mass in the church nearby. Cycle races and occasionally running and walking races started there. The motor bikes of the Skerries 100 thundered impatiently on the starting grid, eager to be away into the country. Military parades, on a modest scale, began or ended on the broad space between Floraville and the library. There was a man called Bob in the F.C.A. who had a very deep, gruff voice.  When the parade marched up Strand Street and wheeled right to salute the flag, the crowd watched in respectful silence. The boots clattered on the pavement. The officer called a command. Just one other voice was audible. Bob’s : “Walk on your own feet—b****x.”  It took away from the solemnity of the occasion but it became a catchphrase with us schoolboys.

There was street dancing for An Tóstal, late at night. I was too young for romance. Grown-ups waltzed under the street lights. They were ancient, some of them in their twenties and thirties. It was all very strange. One of our classmates, in truth, a little gurrier, circulated furtively through the throng, jabbing the dancers with a hat-pin. The music drowned out their cries of pain. He returned to report his success at intervals. Nobody could catch him because of his size. He came back in astonishment. The point of the pin was bent at right angles. Some spoilsport was wearing  whale-bone body armour, better than kevlar. We gazed in wonder at his blunted weapon. He wouldn’t escape now. He is too slow and corpulent. Street dancing? It has always struck me as one of the great injustices suffered by Irish Catholics that on Mardi Gras, the South Americans celebrate with samba bands and women definitely not wearing whalebone, dancing in the streets, while we, the most faithful followers of the Church for thousands of years, dungeon fire and sword and all that,  get pancakes—admittedly with sugar and lemon. I suppose February can be a chilly month. I digress.

Floraville 2013


They have been busy again. Some civic-minded people with a bit of imagination,vision and generosity, have transformed the Floraville site into a welcoming garden, a  South American style plaza  (ahem!), an oasis in the centre of town. With stone, concrete, glass and lawn, they have created a place that literally embraces the visitor. The long seat mimics the shape of our much loved harbour.  Believe me, you will be able to walk on the waves. The transverse line from East to West, like the aisle of a great cathedral, marks the boundary between the two historic parts of Skerries, the original Norse settlement at Hoar Rock and the townland of Holmpatrick. Centuries ago these two entities coalesced to form Skerries. They have invited us to commemorate those whom we cherished, a husband or wife, a child who slipped away too soon, grandparents, friends and colleagues, with their names engraved in granite on the path of memories. These were all, in their individual ways, building blocks of our community. It is simple, appropriate and beautiful.

Clontarf, The Bull, and Floraville 2014 049

Margaret and I have chosen to commemorate our parents, the grandparents of our children, the great-grandparents of our grandchildren. They were always great. Tom came to Skerries at the age of five, an orphan, boarding with the Holy Faith Sisters. He returned with a young family in 1939, fearing that Dublin would be bombed in the impending war. He had had enough of war. A shrewd judgment on two counts. His wife, Kay, taught and educated generations of Skerries girls in the Holy Faith Convent. She is still remembered by her pupils. Barney joined the Civic Guards at the inception of the force. He served in Skerries and Balbriggan and was the youngest sergeant, at the age of nineteen. In his personal integrity and inflexible respect for the rule of law, he embodied the finest traditions of the Garda Síochána, the Guardians of the Peace. It was no small thing to join an unarmed police force in the middle of a bitter civil war. Terrified as he was of the sea, he nevertheless pulled an oar on the lifeboat in an emergency. He found his life’s love in Rita, whose warm and gentle nature touched all who knew her. She made all mother-in-law jokes incomprehensible to me.

Their memory will always be here now, in Floraville Garden, safe within harbour

Where no storms come

Where the green swell is in the havens dumb

And out of the swing of the sea.