Trousers, Lobsters and a Giant Leap Sideways.


 How would this sound as a slogan? Lobsters will fight and Lobsters will be right.  It looks good in red, although lobsters might think otherwise. It needs a great leader and a loud voice, to attract followers,  perhaps other crustaceans, tired of seeing their kinfolk boiled alive to grace the tables of gourmets, gourmands and the running-dogs of capitalist imperialism. No, that isn’t a boiled lobster. It’s a hermit crab without a shell. He has that ammonite spiral perfected by his remote ancestors, countless millions of years ago in the primaeval seas. Our remote ancestors had it too. Even the embryo in the womb retains a touch of the ammonite spiral, in the early days. A Red Spiral would make a potent symbol to rival red crosses, red sunbursts and red stars….The Lobster Liberation Front…..The Ammonite Army….The No-Crab Clause written into the menu of every restaurant.

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Waiters would compile lists of those who ordered the prawn, the shrimp, the crab. We could all end up in re-education camps, re-educating our palates to enjoy only vegetarian food culled from sustainable sources. Is that so far-fetched? It appears that the lobsters liberated last week from a tank in a Chinese restaurant in Dublin, were fetched from as far away as Canada. They were obviously Canadian as they did not fight or make any trouble. They looked a bit glum when they were restored to the sea at Dollymount. It can be very chilly out there. Normally, when alarmed, a lobster performs a Giant Leap backwards. These lads just lay there.The young woman from the Animal Rights group made an impassioned and cogent speech about the cruel fate of the Crustacean race. I can’t argue. I am a life-long offender. I am probably already on that sinister list. Is it an omen that Henry VIII’s ship The Marie Rose, sank with all hands, on her maiden voyage? Only a jar of the delicious sauce survived.


The 1970s gave us plenty of news, reported nightly on television. A lot of it was about war and oil. South East Asia was crucified daily in an attempt to preserve our freedom. Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize. I’m sorry. I’ll read that again. Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize. He did, but then, Time Magazine once named Adolf Hitler their Man of the Year. There was also Richard Millhouse Nixon and Watergate. There were too, hideous crimes against fashion, perpetrated during that decade. Trousers became tighter and tighter at the top and wider and wider at the bottom, to the point that they bestrode this narrow world like a Colossus. (J. Caesar….Great Leader.) There was a world shortage of denim. The spread of trousers had to be curtailed. Severe cutbacks resulted. Fortunately, we had the shaggy dog, Roobarb, to bring a little sanity to the chaos and dismal news. He had five minutes before six o’clock to lift the gloom. If you don’t remember Roobarb, you should look him up on Google. Denim was originally intended for making tents etc. When Levi met Strauss in a gold-mining camp, they decided to make indestructible trousers out of it. It’s a great story. In fact it’s a riveting story.


Roobarb peered through the neck of a bottle wedged in a rock pool. He saw crabs, magnified by the curved glass in the base of the bottle. The crabs went about their business of fighting and tearing one another’s legs off, until they spotted the Giant Eye in the Sky. Some panicked. Others fell down on their numerous knees (I make it 24, not counting the claws, which are I suppose, are arms ) and worshipped the apparition. Others consulted The Wise Old Crab. (Crabwise?) He divined that a Great Leader, a Messiah, had come to save them: “This could be a giant leap sideways for crabkind”, he declared, to universal applause. They waved their arms and legs in excitement. They are very good at that. The tide came in and flooded the rock pool. Roobarb lolloped away. The Six o’Clock News came on The children groaned. So did I.

John D. Sheridan wrote about the simple truths of life. He wrote that no man can sleep easily in his bed, unless he knows that his trousers are nearby, hanging on the bedpost or draped on a chair within reach, in case of an emergency. Trousers are the first life-support system. They have pockets for keys and a few bob. O Casey said: “Money isn’t everything but a few pound in the pocket is good for the nerves.” Trousers keep us warm. They protect our vital assets and our dignity. Dictators and Great Leaders specialise in special police who make dawn raids on suspects, catching them at their most vulnerable, without their trousers. No man can command respect or awe, dressed only his underwear. At the subsequent show trials the defendants’ belts and braces are removed, making them subjects of derision, conclusive proof of guilt. In your liberation revolution, let your motto be…’Keep the faith; keep your powder dry and keep your trousers nearby at all times… preferably on your person.’ That’s far too long for a pithy motto or a rousing speech. An acquaintance of mine many years ago, was surprised in the middle of an amorous dalliance, by the unexpected arrival of the young lady’s father. He managed to salvage his trousers and one shoe, from the debacle, escaping through the window in panic. The romance fizzled out. He lamented the loss of that shoe more than the loss of the love of his life. His story provoked derision and laughter rather than pity or tears. There is a fine line between tragedy and farce.  Kissinger? Did Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite, have a black sense of humour?

Which brings me in a sideways fashion, back to hermit crabs. I had no intention of walking sideways. There is a little cauldron worn into the rocks at low tide level near The Captain’s bathing place at Red Island. It has been scoured to a perfect circle by pebbles carried in and stirred for millennia by the churning waves. I have visited it many times over the years to observe the hermit crabs. There are always some of them in the pool. They go about their business like shoppers at the January sales, constantly searching for the perfect fit. In the endless bargain-basement of the sea they can renew their wardrobe of shells, upgrading from winkle to whelk and possibly to conch if an irresistible bargain drifts by. Sometimes they have to resort to violence to protect a find…just like the January sales. Have you ever noticed how the rejects are indiscriminately thrown on the floor? I mean in the January sales. They wriggle their wobbly tail-ends inside. They sigh with satisfaction. They smile in triumph. The hermit crabs, I mean. After a pleasant lunch with my family and a few glasses of wine, I decided to photograph the hermit crabs. I set off across the rocks, ill equipped for clambering or wading. I took a spectacular tumble on slippery seaweed and lay there with one foot in the water and my dignity severely damaged. I’d swear that I heard the little hermits sniggering. At least they didn’t swarm out of the pool to nab my trousers. I retraced my steps painfully, working my way sideways over the slippery rocks. I was bent over like an ammonite. My left hand began to swell like a lobster claw. That was a few days ago. I have evolved again into an upright, vertebrate, bipedal mammalian life form. That’s a relief. Until genetic engineering can provide me with six more legs, I might stay off the tidal rocks. Throw in a shelly exoskeleton and I will be ready for anything.

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Some Gaulish and German tribes insisted on fighting stark naked as a sign of manliness. Ok. Ok. We believe you. On one memorable occasion (I forget where and when. I must have been looking out the window when we were studying the Gallic Wars–) Julius Caesar manouvered the entire battle into a vast field of nettles and thistles. Surrender  was immediate. Had they never heard of combat trousers? Julius liked to end each chapter on a cheerful note..’making a great slaughter of the enemy’. Great Leaders do that sort of thing. Chairman Mao led his people on a Great Leap Forward into famine and further repression. His successors have sidled away from his doctrines and policies in recent years. My brother, a busy man, used to jog because he had little time to go for a walk. Many years ago, while in Peking, he left his hotel room early in the morning to go for a jog. His good wife was surprised to see him back in twenty minutes. ‘They were all laughing at me’ he complained. You know how that can feel…but 9,000,000 o0f them! He had not heard Katie Melua sing about about nine million bicycles in Beijing. He had not expected to meet nine million laughing and pointing, Chinese cyclists, in identical, grey Chairman Mao padded jackets and trousers. He is quite a large man. Let’s  just say that with his freckles, white skin and hairy legs (He was wearing shorts) he stood out from the crowd. I think they were very mean to my brother. He made a Giant Leap backwards to his hotel,to his trousers and his dignity.

The man who owned the Grosvenor House pub at the harbour, also owned a coal yard. He maintained a constant vigil against the Guards, especially during The Holy Hour. An upstairs window was always left slightly down. His head would emerge sideways through the gap,  leaving a semi circle of hair oil and coal dust on the reveal over the window. He emerged with the caution of a hermit crab and withdrew slowly to the protective shell of his pub when the coast was clear. Grosvenor House, renamed, is now a very fine seafood restaurant. There is another one where the coalyard used to be. We went there yesterday to celebrate the happy occasion of our first grand-daughter’s graduation. I had the prawns. From Thailand. Far fetched or what?

Don’t tell anyone. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Shrimps might get to hear about it. Or the Gambas Gang. Not to mention The Spanish Squidinkquisition. Aha!!! Who dares to mention The Spanish Squidinkquisition?

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Red sails in the…….An infinity of mirrors. Red Island, Skerries.

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If you hold a mirror up to a mirror, you see a tunnel of mirrors, theoretically going on into infinity, to the extent that you are seeing images from the past. It has to do with the time it takes the light from the furthest mirror image to reach your eye. (They’re all the same distance away, in the plane of the mirror you’re holding.) Light, as you know, is pretty fast. The light you see from a star fifty million light years away started out fifty million years ago and has just reached your eyes. This should be big news. That particular star may no longer exist but we will have to wait another fifty million years to see the light going out. That will be big news. While you are waiting, enjoy the show. Wander around by Red Island. Watch the Mirror dinghies dancing and vying for position in a stiff breeze. Watch the wind and kite surfers levitating on the waves. Dive in and enjoy the waves yourself. You have time to kill.

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On the north east side of Red Island you are shielded from the lights of the town. On a clear, moonless night the stars lean closer, like diamonds on a black cloth. You can find true north and for a few minutes get your bearings in the immensity of the Universe. We took the children there one night, to see Kohoutek’s comet. It was predicted to be as bright as the full moon. It was, as the fella says, a bit of a damp squid. Comets are a bit squid shaped when you think about it. “What will you do if it hits the earth?” I asked. They knew a fair bit about rockets and aliens. “I’ll kill myself just before it hits,” said one little fellow. “That way I won’t get hurt.” “I’m freezin’ ” chorused the others. “Can we go home now?” That was in 1973. So far so good, although experts tell us that they have discovered a whole new category of asteroids whizzing around in space, each one with our number on it. Kohoutek was C/1973 EI, a Cork or Aer Lingus registration, easy for the Guards to track down. after the impact. Kohoutek will be back again to a sky near you in 75,000 years time. You have been warned.


My mother remembered seeing Halley’s comet in 1910. It made a big impression on her. It was caught in the branches of their pear tree. She said that Halley was at Bethlehem, two millennia ago and managed to get into the Bayeux Tapestry in 1066. Definitely worth a look.  So we went back to Red Island in 1986, this time to impress the younger children.  Halley put on a better show than Kohoutek but the wind was bitterly cold. “Lemme back in the car. I’m freezin’. ” They were not impressed. Halley will be back again in 2061. I will be 118 years old by then, too old to be coping with recalcitrant children. They can do what they like about Halley. Hale-Bopp, arriving in 1997, was the ultimate squib.  It blazed in the night sky. It was visible for 19 months, brighter than most stars. It will be back in 3,397A.D. I will probably wander around to Red Island to have a gander at it.

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It’s not red at all. The name came from the practice of drying newly dyed sails on the grass. It came to mean a holiday camp, popular with visitors from England after the war. They were good-natured people who enjoyed a drink and a sing-song in the Gladstone Inn. I meant to write about the McManus sail-making family of Skerries and Boston, but more of them anon. The Mirrors drew me in a different direction. Contemplating infinity is daunting. Astrologers tell you that the Cosmos is centred on you. You are important. Astronomers tell us that we are insignificant in the great scheme of things. Astrology has a greater following. The mirrors that take us into the past are old photographs, memories and stories of those who are precious to us. One image can prompt a train of thought, as can a word, a scent or a fleeting sound. I heard an old ‘Red Islander’ in The Gladstone, reciting a poem about the Battle of ‘Astings: There was ‘Arold on ‘is ‘orse, wiv ‘is ‘awk on ‘is ‘and… 


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There indeed he is on this wonderful record of the past. Poor old ‘Arold, wiv an arrer in ‘is eye..  Isti mirant stella The lads right of centre in the lower panel, are ostensibly gazing at Halley’s Comet. One of them is shrugging: ‘Don’t ask me.’ Is it a good or bad omen? Depends on which side you’re on. They are, of course, mistaken. It’s a wocket ship with alien invaders on board, as any child could tell you. Keep an eye out for them in 2061.

Memory waits in ambush


It takes me a good hour to walk around ‘The Head’. That is if I walk briskly. If I walk properly, it takes two or three hours, possibly four. There is always something to look at or somebody to talk to. I don’t burn off any calories. It took me long enough to put on a little bit of weight. It keeps me warm– as do the memories. Many years ago, about 1977 (open to correction) I saw the martello tower, standing isolated. The holiday camp was gone. It was as if it had folded up and vanished. The martello tower looked as it should, a sentinel, solid as the rocks around it— back to normal. It is a failing of age that you expect things to get back to normal. I am still waiting for the traffic to get back to normal, two dogs, Miss Hurley’s cart, in which she transported buttermilk, a group of sepia-coloured cyclists leaning on their bikes and a bus. ‘Is the bus in?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Who was on it?’


Now, that’s normal; the Tower Tea Rooms, the Tower Theatre and Percy Clifton’s field, where you can still pick mushrooms, if you get there early enough. You might be allowed go up from the strand, with two pennies in your fist, to get an ice cream at the shop. There were slot machines up there too, but these were off limits. There was a juke box, where older boys and girls gathered, looking nonchalant and unimpressed, sometimes smoking and taking in the scene; off limits too. Jazz! I read recently that the Irish Farmers’ Association staged a mass protest march, as they have often done, to protest against —Jazz! That was in 1947 or 48, when the Shannon was spreading all over the midlands and crops were rotting in the fields. Britain and Europe were starving under a rationing regime, but first things first. Get rid of that oul’ jazz. What Ireland needed was a Marshall Plan to stamp out jazz, get the country back on its feet, get the farmers out on the roads, protesting against jazz. Daft. The boys and girls in the juke box arcade were not protesting.

Neither did I, but first I needed an ice cream. Two pennies bought a respectable wafer, cut from the block, or pressed into a hand-held mould with two flaps, that sprang open at the touch. It looked like a gigantic safety razor, with a wafer inserted instead of a blade. Fourpence bought as much as any child could ever desire. Choc ices in foil, with no sticks–too cold to handle.  Eightpence bought Lucullan luxury, decadence, gluttony, depravity, everything we longed for. To hell with rationing. Give it a lash. Eightpence didn’t come around too often.

I went to the theatre once, that I can remember: The Miracle of Fatima. It was important to see it because the world was due to end in 1950, after the Pope revealed the Third Secret of Fatima. I can’t recall if I ever heard the first two. What’s the point of having a secret if you can’t tell everyone? It was important to go to the play in order to get my soul ready for Armageddon, the Second Coming, the General Judgement and the End of Days. There was a reasonable chance of ice cream or lemonade at the interval and moreover, you were allowed go out in the dark, after your tea. Most importantly, my older sister had a speaking part, a one-liner: ‘The sun is falling!’  She was very good. Thunder rumbled and  lights flashed. I repented of my sins on the spot. The boy, Francesco, lay slumbering on a bank of moss and flowers. A group of shepherds found him and regarded him in awe. In drama it is important to prrroject the voice. One of the shepherds told me in later years, about his moment of stardom. He was supposed to say: ‘Behold, he is asleep.’  Holy people always say Behold. Overcome by the solemnity of the occasion and the requirements of his trade, he spake unto the assembled multitude (Holy people always spake unto  the rest of us.) In ringing tones he declaimed, to the back of the hall: ‘Behold, he is a sheep.‘ Forty years on, he could laugh about it, but his stage career took a downward course. At least, the sky didn’t fall about our ears. If I heard him that night, it didn’t register with me. We were in a place of miracles anyway. Dan Brown would, no doubt, have a more sinister interpretation of his words.


My sister took me for a walk around The Head. There were men digging in Clifton’s field. They were digging foundations. She told me that they were digging their graves and that the Germans were going to come and shoot them all so that they would fall into the graves. She must have been reading the papers, or perhaps she had seen newsreels in the cinema. I kept a wary eye on the men as we passed by. My brother climbed up The Girder, a diving structure at the Springboards. One of the men came down and told him to get down. He seemed a kindly man, despite the doom-laden circumstances of his employment.  A holiday camp rose from the foundations. There was a high fence around it. The mushrooms were off limits. Thousands of holiday-makers came every summer to enjoy the delights of Skerries. The menu boasted ‘real eggs.’ You could have two eggs and one sausage or two sausages and one egg. Coming from bleak, post war Britain, they loved Red Island. They were invariably cheerful and spent their money in Skerries. They ate the best of Irish food, as the farmers had got over their obsession with Louis Armstrong and Big Bill Broonzy. They played pitch and putt on the mushroom field. There were bright borders of nasturtiums, with hawk-moths hovering over the blossoms. I wanted them to be humming birds. There was music on loudspeakers, all day long: Hear My Song, Violetta (a gut-buster from Joseph Locke); She Wears Red Feathers and a Hooly Hooly Skirt (too hot to handle); There’s a Pawnshop on the Corner (a cautionary tale)… all evidence of depravity, but we enjoyed it from outside the fence. It seemed that the sun always shone on Red Island.

Then cheap package holidays made everyone a jet-setter. The holiday camp tottered and fell. It was cleared away. I walked over to have a look. There was something strange. I was five years old again. The tower was back to normal. I thought of tuppenny wafers and fourpenny ones. How did ‘fourpenny one’ become synonymous with a clout in the ear? I was mugged by memories. I stopped and had a good look around. There was a car park on the tennis court. The walk took me a couple of hours. Maybe I went to look for mushrooms. I still get them there, early in the morning, before gulls and crows have a go at them. They can make a tasty breakfast after a swim.

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A friend salvaged some planks from the demolition of the holiday camp. He gave me two, for old time’s sake. I made shelves. They looked hideous.  The planks warped and all the stuff fell off. Now I go to Ikea. Everything fits. It’s a miracle!  The third secret..? Read the bloody instructions.

Hunter gatherers, well suited to the job. The Hungry Generations.

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Mick Gargan lived in one of the white cottages on the North Strand, as shown in the old photograph on the Timeline. My sincerest thanks to the compiler of Skerries History in Photos for this treasure trove. The foreshore was, at the time, a crumbling, clayey bank. The bank was overgrown with wild spinach and weeds. There was a plant known as Elephant’s Ears, with a small, pink, rather miserable flower. Mick’s cottage was at right angles to the sea, with a small window in the gable end. No doubt it caught the midsummer evening sun, just like the modern houses that succeeded it. A modern architect would have persuaded him to open a picture window in the gable, but there was no triple glazing in Mick’s time and houses were built to shun the sea wind, arse to the breeze, like an intelligent donkey.

Like most men of his time Mick wore a suit and a long gaberdine. Encyclopaedia Britannica as late as the early seventies, remarked on the poor state of dress of the Dublin working man. Britannica knew everything, but they did not understand that a suit begins life as a Sunday ‘good suit’ and gradually works it way down to ‘working clothes’. What they observed was that Irish men had not adopted the notion of specialised work gear. A farmer would throw a sack over his shoulders in wet weather, but he still wore a suit, complete with waistcoat, (with the bottom button open, in deference to King Edward VII). There is a wonderful film of Skerries dinghy sailors of the Forties and Fifties, all wearing suits and smoking. A sail bag might be worn over the shoulders in heavy weather. No wonder everybody groaned with rheumatism and arthritis. I knew a man whose wife complained that, when he bought a new suit, he would go out and dig the garden or chop wood ‘to break it in.’ Now it’s all gortex, kevlar and sturdy denim, with knee pads for those who kneel and boots and helmets before you are allowed on site.

My interest in Mick Gargan extended to watching him when he went to gaff crabs at Red Island. He was a typical ‘oul fella’. We young lads wondered what he was doing, so we sneaked after him to find out. It was amazing. With a bit of bull-wire, bent into a hook, he pulled big red crabs out of crevices in the rocks near the low tide mark. He moved slowly and deliberately in his dark suit and long coat. He never said anything to us but now I imagine that he sensed ‘the hungry generations treading him down’ and usurpers moving in on his territory. We watched how he pulled back the weed and rooted in cracks and crevices with the gaff. Most importantly, we noted the locations of the holes. There are about a twenty good ones, that give up crabs in May, June and July. We went up to the Ballast Pit to get bull-wire from the old railway fences. Bull-wire, like everyone else, gives up under constant stress. Just keep bending it back and forth. Hammer a Hook at one end and a loop for a handle at the other and you are ready to put Mick Gargan out of business. It’s a jungle out there.

There is a knack to it. The red crab scrunches up when you invade his lair. You have to persuade him to grab the hook or get it inside his claw. It is a battle of wits. It might seem like an unequal contest, an educated, civilised, literate individual, from a species that has landed men on the Moon and split the atom, against an arthropod crustacean of limited intelligence, but more legs and claws. The crab can lie still, pretending to be a stone, but he always loses patience and makes a tell-tale sound as he tries to wedge himself further in. Let him go. Pull sharply, as he is adjusting his position and you have him. Did you see Ed Harris as the sniper in Enemy at the Gate. Patience is everything. It’s a primitive instinct to catch and eat your prey. The green crab comes out fighting. He’s an ugly, noisy customer. Don’t eat him or you will die an agonising death, or so the wisdom of ‘oul fellas’ tells us.

I could never resist wild food. The wild spinach all along the coast, is delicious, although the ubiquitous Skerries dogs might give you pause. Blackberries are everywhere. Crab apples in season, fall from the hedgerows. My brother mentioned a good crop up near the cemetery. If I am to be buried before him, I am sure that he will be, inconsolable, heart-broken, nay, devastated, but I am also sure that he will check out the crab apples if the season is right.

My old man loved wild mushrooms. After work in summer and autumn, he would become restless.
‘I believe I’ll take a ramble across the fields,’ he would say, by way of preamble. ‘Where are my galoshes?’ Galoshes were the only concession he made to rural life. He always wore his suit, with waistcoat, shirt and tie. He wore a hat, which he raised to any lady passing, including his daughters. (Please do not confuse galoshes with Gauloise, a brand of French cigarette, although they smell much the same.) At weekends he tried to get out before Jimmy Dillon, but I don’t think he ever succeeded. He always met Jimmy coming back with a well filled bag. ‘Good Morning, Corporal Dillon,’ he would greet him, letting Jimmy know that he was out-ranked. But Jimmy had once again, stolen a march. Once, when he was very old, he set off from our house to ramble along the fields as he had done for many years. It grew dark. I went to look for him. Perhaps he had missed his step and fallen over the cliff. I realised for the first time that my father had become an’ oul fella.’ No luck. I came back to the house to consult. He was there before me. There were no mushrooms, so he had thought it wiser to walk on along the treacherous cliff path to Loughshinny and take refreshment in the Yacht Bar before taking a bus home. The expedition was not a complete loss.

I have two crab gaffs. They could be fifty years old. My children enjoyed crab catching until they became sophisticated and began to frequent sea-food restaurants. My grandchildren still think it’s cool. They have demanded a map of the crab ‘courses’ before I retire completely. I have not kept up the standard of dress set by Mick Gargan, favouring jeans and old runners. I can no longer run and jump over the rocks. My six year old grandson said: ‘Grandad, your’re old, so I’ll hold on to you.’ What is he implying? Do I hear the suggestion of ‘oul fella’ in his kind offer? I know now why Mick Gargan moved so slowly and deliberately. As for those arthropods. They have, by my reckoning, thirty moving joints. They live in constant damp. They must suffer hell with arthritis. It is a kindness to put them out of their misery.

There was a young fellow who had an amazing knack for crab catching. He spurned the gaff in favour of using his hands. He festooned his jumper with his catch. The red crab will hang on through hell and high water. He always reminded me of General Ridgeway, of Korean War fame. The general wore hand-grenades on his shirt, probably as a gimmick, like Monty collected regimental cap badges and Patton wore pearl-handled Colt revolvers. I digress. This young fellow is now the C.E.O. of a major Irish company. Not long ago, after a very important meeting and business lunch, he went for a walk around Red Island, with a colleague, impeccably dressed, as befitted the serious nature of the occasion. The tide was low. When they reached The Captains, that atavistic hunter-gatherer instinct afflicted him. He took off his jacket. (A small informality.) ‘Here, hold this,’ he said, handing the jacket to his puzzled colleague. He nipped out over the rocks, his feet following instinctively, the familiar paths and toe-holds and came back with a clutch of red crabs. ‘Couldn’t resist it,’ he said. I don’t know what his good wife had to say about the state of his shoes and trousers, but I am glad to know that crab catching sartorial standards are being maintained in some quarters.

The little cottage is gone now. The foreshore has been reinforced by concrete. Mick Gargan is no more. May the light continue to shine on him for the knowledge he unwittingly imparted to three more generations.