To See a World in a Grain of Sand /and Eternity in an Hour

Aisa Craig granite 011

Ailsa Craig Granite

When we were boys we collected birds’ eggs. It’s illegal now, as I understand. It’s even illegal to possess them, without some sort of permit. My criminal past is all behind me. The evidence has been destroyed by time, by swaps, malevolent rivals, faulty cardboard boxes crushed under junk and a gradual feeling that the eggs were probably better off if left in the nests to hatch. ‘Nest’ would be overstating things with regard to most sea birds. The birds rely on camouflage. The eggs may be in a depression scraped in the beach or under the lee of a rock. In some cases the eggs are laid on vertiginous rocky ledges and shaped in such a way as to prevent them rolling off. Like Mr. Wobbly Man, the weight is at one end.

Troon trip July 2015 013  Tara, Rockabill, Harbour end 069

There are wonderful maps on Lambay Island showing the nesting grounds of the various birds and the times at which they laid. This was to facilitate commercial exploitation of a valuable source of protein, until the advent of large-scale poultry farming. How do you like your eggs in the morning? Preferably with no little feathery scaldy inside.

Troon trip July 2015 024

The luminous midsummer night gave way to a bleak and blustery dawn. The wind picked up and Ailsa Craig peeped above the horizon. A pyramid rising from the sea; a hanging garden viewed from afar; ‘Paddy’s Milestone,’ a landmark for homesick labourers leaving Ireland to earn a few pounds in the potato fields of Scotland. It’s the plug of an ancient volcano from the time when Scotland’s Highlands tore away from the Appalachians and the Atlantic Ocean swelled up to fill the void. It took some time. It is still happening. ‘Preposterous time’ William Goldsmith calls it, a length of time too vast for our puny minds to comprehend. Time enough for living things to evolve, to swim in the oceans and rivers, to creep upon the Earth and take to the air on flimsy wings, colonising islands and cliffs and laying their eggs in relative safety.

Troon trip July 2015 032  Troon trip 2 July 2015 012

The sun emerged. The  rock took on some colour. It crept closer. We could see the white of gannet colonies on the slopes. The Solan Goose. A delicacy. Robby Burns’s father was said to be in the solan goose trade. I would never have dared, had it been possible, to try to collect a gannet’s egg. It has angry eyes. It is armed with a fearsome weapon. It takes no prisoners. Someone suggested a dip off the jetty. The early morning cold and a vast brown jellyfish, knocked that idea on the head. The chef prepared porridge with honey, to put some volcanic warmth into his torpid crew. It worked. We went ashore. That’s probably illegal, to judge by all the cautionary notices. The island is for sale for a paltry £1,500,000. Would the Marquess of Ailsa take a cheque? I doubt it. The birds live rent free on what is, and always has been, their territory. It is now officially a bird sanctuary. There goes the egg and solan goose trade. The smugglers gave up centuries ago and migrated to Rush, in County Dublin. The granite quarry is abandoned. The railway could still run if enough muscle power could be made available. (That was powerful porridge.)

Troon trip 2 July 2015 022 Troon trip 2 July 2015 019  Troon trip 2 July 2015 018

Modernity has rendered all the industry of Ailsa Craig obsolete. There are living quarters abandoned while still undergoing renovation. There is no need for coal or oil. Engine rooms are filled with rusty metal. The fog horns have fallen silent, their windpipes and lungs decayed and shattered. Modern navigational devices, guided from space, can see through fog and darkness. There is a Marie Celeste air about everything: old newspapers and books musty with damp; broken windows; lath-and -plaster hanging from walls and ceilings; tattered and battered furniture; roof-trees giving way under the weight of time and neglect. Only the lighthouse, automated, with  pristine solar panels, abides. There is no shortage of stones.

The Scots invented the sport of curling, just as they invented golf. Golf has taken over the world. It has become a vast industry, while curling remains a minority sport, an amalgam of bowls and housework. For golf you need an array of specialised equipment. For curling you need some ice, a polished stone and an accomplice with a sweeping brush. It has become an Olympic sport. It has a mesmeric, balletic quality about it. Even the sweeping becomes dramatic. The best stones come from Ailsa Craig. The granite, blue-hone granite, is fine-grained and takes a high polish. A curling stone is a piece of sculpture in its own right. Intriguingly, Ailsa Craig granite crops up on the North Strand in Skerries, several hundred miles to the south, carried by the gyre of the Irish Sea tides. The stones are polished almost as smooth as the curling stones by their long and grinding journey. They lie, speckled like birds’ eggs on the shelving strand, where Vikings once grounded their keels.

Troon trip 2 July 2015 013

When the keel begins to converse with the stones on the bottom, it is time to leave. Time to pack up memories and impressions of this melancholy but beautiful place and hand it back to the stewardship of rabbits and teeming flocks of seabirds. We headed northwards to Troon and the teeming hordes of golf pilgrims. I took a little pebble with me; probably illegal. It’s about three billion years old, give or take a few million. I like old things.

Troon trip 2 July 2015 024

I left plenty behind.

Advertisements

The Lane Pictures

Youghal and Skerries lanes 059Youghal and Skerries lanes 054  Youghal and Skerries lanes 055  Youghal and Skerries lanes 061

 

I can still remember, some sixty five years ago or more, the shock of surprise on looking down the various lanes leading to the South Strand and seeing Rockabill lighthouse at the end of each one. It confirmed in me the childhood suspicion that Rockabill is really a ship. No matter where I go, it slides along the horizon, keeping pace with me. I knew nothing of perspective or triangulation…still don’t know much…but it keeps pace with me when I go for a walk, sometimes hiding behind an island and then darting out like a sheepdog, running away to north or south to herd the boats towards the harbour in safety…mixed metaphors there.  I regard these lanes as being parallel. Parallel lines meet in infinity, so Rockabill, being their focal point, must be quite close to infinity.

It is impossible to walk down any of these lanes without encountering memories. Halfway down Fairs’ Lane, we queued for the cheap seats in Flanagans’ picture house, usually in the rain, but who worried about rain? Sophisticates, with a few more bob, queued under an awning around the corner. They sat in the raised seats and looked down on the plebs. A plaque commemorates old Flanagan who introduced electricity to Skerries. Had he not done so, we would have spent our evenings in darkness and gloom, instead of joining in the excitement  and glamour of Hollywood. But it is fitting that the lane is Fairs’ Lane, not Flanagans’. Johnny Fair,with his grocer’s shop on the corner, lived up to his name. A decent, universally respected, Northern Protestant, in the days when such things were automatically registered in the mind, he was a fair man to talk. If you were waiting to collect stuff for your Mammy, you knew that you were doomed when he leaned his left elbow on the counter and put his chin on the palm of his hand, in conversation with some adult. This could cost you half an hour of your life. I should remember the content, the fascinating details of village life, the gossip, the news, the scandal, but the time passed in a sort of catatonic trance as I read the labels on the storage boxes behind the counter and shifted from one foot to the other, rehearsing my list of ‘messages.’ Bizarrely, the Volunteers, during the War of Independence, got buckets of paraffin ‘on tick’, from Johnny Fair and headed off across the strand to burn down the Coast-Guard station. I wonder if the bill was ever paid.

Weldons Lane 012   Weldons Lane 014

The perks of the job. Mr. Weldon was a major shareholder and manager in the quarry. Did he bring work home to make a very fine kerb for his railings? Did he perhaps, secrete these blocks about his person, when going home in the evening?  There is an urban legend about a worker in General Motors who pilfered a complete car, in installments over a period of years. By the time the vehicle was assembled, it had gone out of fashion and spare parts were hard to come by. Mr. Weldon’s railings and kerbstones still retain an old-fashioned elegance.

Youghal and Skerries lanes 056

This was O Neills’ Lane to us and more puzzlingly, Bombush Lane. I enquired. It was Bonne Bouche, pleasant bite. John O Neill sold sweets in his Aladdin’s cave of a shop. Another Northerner with a facility for chat. Another half hour of your life gone but worth it. I heard about the White-Russian lady gymnast who married a farmer back where John came from. “She wore a leotard, Master.” He always called me ‘Master’, as is the custom back where John came from. “I tell you, Master, we never saw anything like it in those days, back where I came from. They came from all over to see her. She set up these bars in the yard and used to swing on them, over and back. Over and back. Oh Mother o’ God! Heh,heh.”  What would John think of the modern garb? Oh Mother o’ God!

Youghal and Skerries lanes 062  Youghal and Skerries lanes 063

You can say anything to anyone in a pub, as long as it’s only  ‘slagging.’ You must say it to his face. If you say it behind his back, it’s slander.   Slagging is not as brutal as the American custom of ‘The Roast.’ There is a strong element of affection and respect in slagging. There is the assumption that your interlocutor can give as good as he gets. Alcohol helps.  “Hey Flanagan”challenged Mike Manning, a big and jovial man. “Your family made quite a contribution to Skerries over the years.”  “Indeed we did,” replied Leo. He was justly proud of his family’s contribution. “So how come there isn’t a road or even a lane named after you?” Fair question. “I’d rather have that than have a Flanagan’s Opening with a public convenience at the bottom of it.”  Fair answer too. Mike laughed.

Youghal and Skerries lanes 067

McLoughlins’ Lane is Monument Lane or Carnival Lane, depending on your frame of mind. Be careful of your footing. In wet weather it can be mucky. A man came out of the back entrance of The Dublin Bar one night and went to take a short cut home. He was noted for his stammer. He missed the entrance to McLoughlin’s lane and bounced off the wall. He had another go. He hit the wall on the other side and fell backwards. He got up and tried again. He missed again. He got up and dusted himself down. He regarded the entrance indignantly. “B-b-b-bred, b-b-born and r-rared in the e-e-effin town an’ I can’t even get out of it.” He should have a lane named after him.

June 7th of this year marks the centenary of the torpedoing of The Lusitania, off the Old Head of Kinsale lighthouse. This obscenity gave us the concept of ‘a crime against humanity.’ You would think that humanity would stop and think and even pull back from the horrors of war. Not a chance. It set the fashion for total war and innumerable crimes against humanity in the bloodiest century to date. Among the 1198 people destroyed on that date, (It took 15 minutes) was Sir Hugh Lane, benefactor and connoisseur of art.  You can go and see some of his paintings in the Municipal Gallery in Dublin and remember him, perhaps as an antidote to the the commemoration of a decade of violence and mayhem. In the meantime, my ocean liner goes full steam ahead in every weather, with a cargo of memories.(I hate that cliché Memory Lane but it’s almost unavoidable.) Remember the good things and the good people and commemorate them in your mind. Fair play to them.

Tara, Rockabill, Harbour  end 100

Cod and Ships. Apples and Onions.

wooden11_1

Don’t you love the geometry of old sailing vessels? This is Mavis winning Skerries regatta in 1928, a little before my time. Designed and built by the legendary John Kearney of Ringsend, it is heartwarming to know that she is being restored in Camden, Maine at present, with a re-launch date of July 2015. The Kearneys of Ringsend, made a massive contribution to boat building in Skerries over the years.  Everyone without exception, responds to sailing vessels, the adventurer, the yachtsman, the romantic dreamer, the poet, the painter,the wood-worker, the storyteller. There is an elegance to a sailing ship that belies the hard work and danger involved in harnessing the wind. She arrives mysteriously, as a cloud appearing over the horizon and departs like a stately lady adjusting her train, tilting her hat and shaking out her parasol.

Scan0031

In the early 19th century there were over one hundred sailing vessels fishing and trading out of Skerries. Despite the changes brought about by two centuries, the harbour is still recognisable. The power behind all this activity lay the sail-maker’s skill. The village provided employment through several sail lofts, a bark yard and a rope-walk. Without these, commerce would have been in the Doldrums, to borrow a phrase. Red Island, as is well known, took its name from the red sail-cloth drying on the grass. The tan-bark was boiled in a great cauldron and the canvas was soaked, strengthened and given its characteristic colour.

Bark yard 2015 and trees etc 059Bark yard 2015 and trees etc 060

As a child I thought that the Bark Yard was full of dogs. I gave it a wide berth, to borrow another phrase. It became a coal yard. It is now an impregnable fortress with an enormous oil tank inside. Only the windows show where the covered building stood, where sails were cut and sewn and men gossipped and argued about boats and fishing and always, the laws of the sea. “If me mother was on the port tack and wouldn’t give way, I’d run her up on the Dorn of Shennick.” The corner-stones of dressed limestone bear witness still to what an imposing place it was. Oil is the power now. It drives commerce and world politics. It shimmers on the waters of the harbour. It stinks. It never suggests an elegant lady in a flowing dress, with a white parasol over her shoulder.

Scan0030

(Elizabeth Howard, Photo courtesy of Bill Dunne)

In the final year of the Great Famine, Charles McManus, of Lower Quay, Street, Skerries, like many thousands of other Irish people, took his family to Boston. He took also his skill as a sail-maker, learnt and perfected in The Bark Yard. He prospered in that great seaport. The McManus name, through several generations, became synonymous with sail making and the design of  schooners for the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. The seemingly inexhaustible supply of cod from those foggy and unpredictable waters, went to feed the expanding population of a newly industrial America. By general consent, the McManus schooners were by far the safest in the fishing grounds. It is tempting to think that the DNA of the Skerries boats evolved, through Charles McManus and his descendants, into the sleek racing yachts and schooners of New England. A poet would get away with such an idea. A storyteller would think it and maybe, weave some strands together.

2007_0708daffs0105

In 1836 Richard Henry Dana sailed from Boston as an ordinary seaman, for ‘two years before the mast.’  His journey took him around The Horn to trade for hides in Mexican California. He recounts how he was sent ashore to a little island called Alcatraz to cut wood for the cook’s fire. He also tells how his ship, the brig, Pilgrim, on the return journey, met an outgoing ship carrying fruit and vegetables. They traded hides for onions, the first fresh vegetables they had eaten in months. Everywhere on the ship, below and aloft, the men munched onions. They gloried in onions. They discussed and rhapsodized about, onions. Like Darwin, the voyage gave him time to think. He espoused education and humanitarian causes. He opposed slavery. He wrote a great book. Our father read it to us from a battered and much handled copy, with the stitching hanging out. We wondered at the notion of tanned hides flying from the cliffs down to the beach like enormous bats. We shivered at the notion of flogging. We thrilled at the descriptions of icebergs and the storms around Cape Horn. But always I thought irreverently, about the onions. The Doldrums presented no problem to Pilgrim.

055

(Photo courtesy of Fergus Ryan)

My father’s Aunt Nellie rented a house beside the Bark Yard. There was an apple tree in the garden…Beauty of Bath. She sent The Pony Daly to deliver a sack of apples to us. This was Heaven. At any time of the day or night you could go and get an apple and munch away, until inevitably, tragically the sack was depleted. My brothers, the swabs, had taken the last ones. String them from the yard-arms, keel haul them, trice them aloft, the scurvy dogs. I recognised the situation when Jim Hawkins hid in the apple barrel and overheard Long John, Israel Hands and other malcontents plotting mutiny on Hispaniola. A story to feed the imagination. Ben Gunne as you recall, longed for cheese. I imagine that Aunt Nellie could have taken those mutineers in hand. She made great apple tarts, with cloves from Zanzibar, where Arab dhows with lateen sails, cleave the waters of the Indian Ocean and the ghost of Vasco da Gama still haunts the shores of Africa. Diolinda of Wexford, my grandfather’s schooner, saw out her last years in those waters. Stories all driven by sail.

Bark yard 2015 and trees etc 070

(Lower Quay Street is now the narrow end of Strand Street. Charles McManus lived in the first cottage on The Crack, from where Joe and Rory Kelly set out to sail the oceans of the world.)