Old Lifeboat House, 1906 –2014.

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This was the lifeboat house in its heroic age, a century ago. The picture tells the story. The launch of the lifeboat was a momentous spectacle. Everyone came to watch, ladies in summer dresses, young men in flannels and knickerbockers, barefoot urchins, sturdy men in cork lifejackets. You can imagine the buzz of conversation and the clunk of the wheels on a fine Sunday morning. Fewer would have turned up to watch a launch in a howling gale with rain slanting in from the east and waves thundering on the Grey Mare Rock. Those were times of fear, when people strained their gaze seaward, dreading to learn what toll the sea might claim.

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The burly man with the beard, made burlier by his lifejacket, was Reverend Shegog, rector of Holmpatrick, a man who saw practical service to his community as an integral part of his vocation. My father, a child boarding with the nuns, looked askance at Reverend Shegog, because he was one of our separated brethren. In later years he admitted that the rector was indeed a mighty man, almost a giant in a child’s eyes. He would be pleased to see this image nowadays in bars and restaurants around the town. He would no doubt, raise a glass in honour of Reverend Shegog and indeed of the entire crew. Appropriate for a clergyman to become part of an icon.

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I became aware of the Lifeboat House sometime in the late forties. There was no lifeboat in it. I think there was turf stored there. It was a place of refuge in sudden summer showers, perhaps during a band recital in the newly developed park on the site of the ruined Coastguard station. One day there was a man painting murals. He painted freehand, covering the interior with Disney characters, Mickey Mouse, Goofy, the Seven Dwarfs, Snow White, Hollywood glamour and sparkling colour all over the walls. I was entranced. Not since Michelangelo put a few coats of paint on the Sistine Chapel, had anyone so totally transformed a plain barn of a building. Then came an ice cream counter with all the delights that a child’s heart could wish for. There were slot machines that disgorged endless streams of money, but only big people were allowed to use them. Our parents did not approve of slot machines, despite the wealth that flowed from them. There was pinball, with real pins and real steelers, not the etiolated shadow of pinball that children play on electronic devices nowadays. Table football  was played by young men with all the fervour and cheering associated with the real thing. Most wonderful of all was the jukebox, a marvel of automation and flowing chameleon lights. It was the most colour that I had ever seen. (You may remember the forties. It rained a lot.) It was a Wurlitzer. I thought that that meant it contained all the music in the Wurld.  My spelling needed attention. For a mere twelve-sided thrippenny bit you could command Doris Day, Jo Stafford or George Clooney’s auntie to pour out her feelings in song, the desires and longings of a generation yet to be labelled ‘teenagers.’ There was a song about a doggie in the window and a robin walkin’ to Missouri, but the less said about them the better. Woof woof. Sorry about that.

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The juke box, like all glamorous things, came from America. The music was practically all American, except for Ruby Murray and Bing Crosbie, who was Irish by popular acclaim.. They sang about other things besides mawkish love. I preferred the cowboy songs: Tex Ritter and High Noon, Slim Whitman whining about tumbleweeds and just about everything else; some other cowboy with a fear of being fenced in: let me wander over yonder, til I see the mountains rise. Guy Mitchell belted out a cautionary tale about a pawn shop on a corner in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and a very foolish man indeed. There was a recitation about shifting, whispering sands, a dead miner and the crafty Navajo. It was different. Tennessee Ernie Ford sang manly songs about fightin’ and trouble and diggin’ coal. One fist is iron; the other one’s steel. If the right one don’t getcha, then the left one will. Walk softly around Tennessee Ernie. I wanted to grow up and be tough like that but I didn’t want to have to listen to Nat King Cole groaning about falling in love and broken hearts. That stage came much later, but by then it was the whimpering Everly Brothers and their ilk. On balance, I preferred the ice cream. Let the big people pay for the music.

At that time, the top twenty hits were calculated on the sales of sheet music, not records. Sheet music! Then the market discovered  the buying power of teenagers. A succession of men with sufficient gravitas to ensure good behaviour, Charlie Grimes, Felix Murray and the ever cheerful Johnnie Murray, saw generation after generation of youngsters hang around the Pier Shop, as the building was renamed. It is important that young people have some place to hang around, some place to laugh, to strut on occasions, to talk and argue and learn a measure of tolerance, to gradually grow up. It is important also to be able to get in out of the rain and maybe offer a glass of orange juice to a girl you have feared to talk to, all summer long. Shaken, not stirred. The poet Yeats, was inspired to write his most famous poem, by a similar orange juice fountain, in a café on the Edgware Road. It was one of those glass containers with plastic oranges bobbing about. It made the sound of a trickling stream. I will arise and go now and go to Innisfree/ and a small cabin build there of clay and wattles made.  I was surprised that so lofty a  mortal as Yeats would frequent a café.   I was not surprised that a local wag applied for planning permission to Sligo County Council, for a small cabin of clay and wattles made, on an island in Lough Gill. He was refused. Anyway, Lough Gill has the most voracious midges this side of The Amazon rain forest. nevertheless Yeats caught in his poem, the longings of the human heart, for home and love and peace and of course, beans and honey, just as the Pier Shop/ Lifeboat House for a time, held our dreams and longings.

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Indomitable it stands against time and change. My children taught me how to play Western Gun and Pacman in there, the first, and my last, video games. Co-ordination of hand and eye and razor sharp reflexes. I lost. It is now a welcoming restaurant. We filled it recently with our children and grandchildren to celebrate our fiftieth wedding anniversary. They filled it with talk and laughter and agreeable noise. I know that Mickey Mouse and his friends are still there behind the wainscotting, a task for some future archaeologist to uncover and wonder at, as I did. I looked around at a building filled with love. It was better than Bill Haley. Better than Elvis, Lonnie Donegan, Hank Williams and Harry Belafonte. Better even than the great Fats Domino. Better than any juke box filled with endless music. Our parents would have approved. Even Reverend Shegog would have approved, to see the Lifeboat House so full of life..

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Slip-sliding away

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A century ago, this was a cottage. It had a slated roof, a garden and a picket fence. Children played on the strand in summertime. I have seen the pictures… happy holiday-makers returning to Skerries, to the place where their grandfather, Reverend Shegog, was the Minister in the Church of Ireland. You may have seen his photograph, a tall, bearded man in his cork lifejacket, supervising the launching of the lifeboat at the harbour. You may have heard the story of his son, a doctor, who died in the Great War.  A week after his death, a telegram arrived to his quarters, announcing the birth of a child, a child who never knew his father. Old stories, that hang in barely remembered shreds, like the weeds on the crumbling cliff. Perhaps my recollection of the stories, is crumbling too. They echo, like the distant calls of children on a strand, or the cries of the nesting fulmars. Even the fulmars must give some thought to the changes taking place around them.

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Fulmarus glacialis is the official name. The fulmars have lived here ever since the last Ice Age clothed the rock in boulder clay and fine gravel, to make an island. They live on fish, shellfish and small crustaceans, a gourmet diet. They can’t go hungry on Shennick Island.The Dutch name for fulmar is mallemuk meaning foolish gull. The Dutch are mistaken. The fulmars nest together in apparent amity. They stay together all winter, sheltering from the storms. Their food supply is immediately below them. They glide down to forage and soar back up to their ledges, masters of their element. They warn intruders off, with raucous cries.  Gah, Gah, Gah.

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The storms and high tides rend the island. They undermine the cliff. They spill the boulders and gravel onto the strand and sweep it all away. We watch as  the profile changes from year to year. We are concerned. We see the traces of human effort falling away. We experience regret for what is lost. Men stayed overnight in the cottage, to steal a march on the tide, when they went out to collect the woar. The winkle-pickers of today would be glad of four walls and a roof. They come from Latvia. They tell me that they don’t feel the cold. They work at night, with miners’ lamps, moving, like Will o’ the Wisps, on the dark foreshore.

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You can read the story of the Ice Age in the layers, the black marl under the sand of the beach, the rough clay and boulders torn from the bedrock; the fine gravel, deposited grain by grain, in the beds of sub-glacial streams. The sea will take it all, the gravel and the jagged stones, sift and sort it and send it somewhere else, to make beaches of fine sand and drifts of gleaming pebbles. Nothing is lost; everything is changed. The granite pillar above the cottage proclaims ownership of the island, His Majesty’s War Office, ‘in Good King George’s glorious day’. The martello tower belonged to His Majesty. He prepared for war. The gulls and the pigeons own it now.  But for how long more?

For the present, the crabs and winkles welcome the shelter of the rocks and stones. The cockles burrow in the mud and sand. The mussels open and close with the tide. The mussel beds suffered greatly in the recent storms, but already the tiny spat is clothing the rocks, like a fine fur. Give them four years and they will make a tasty meal. People will come to dig for lugworms and probe for razor fish. The tide will ebb and flow, undermining and sifting. Gravity will bear down inexorably. The cottage wall will crack asunder. The tower will creep closer and closer to the edge. You and I won’t be around to see it fall.

The fulmars will move back a foot or two, with every slump and subsidence. They will soar on the updraughts and build their nests in the sun. They will dine together in some style. They will not send their children to war. Foolish gulls? I don’t think so.

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