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

One year; 100 posts. Fox in the Morning.

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I saw an advertisement for classes in willow craft. It is tempting to learn a craft that has served mankind for millennia. I could make baskets and chairs that might take root in the garden, in wet weather. The Dutch wove many of their most serviceable dams from willow. Their Old Masters drew with willow charcoal . Cricketers and oarsmen ply their trade with willow. The phrase that caught my eye was: ‘Learn to make a dream-catcher.’ I don’t know what a dream-catcher is, but I already have one. It has a clunky name–‘a Blog,’ derived however, from ‘Web Log.’  A web is a dream-catcher. A log is a journal of a voyage. Fanciful, no doubt. It was suggested to me, some time ago, that I should write a memoir.  I demurred, on the grounds that I had nothing memorable to write about. I decided instead to begin a blog, gathering together memories of almost  three quarters of a century. One hundred posts and one year later I have a crazy-paving memoir, possibly even a mosaic.

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This is Hattons’ Wood, a long line of trees and undergrowth, with a right-angled bend to the left. I wanted to live in this wood, when I was a child. I wanted to dig a burrow under a great tree and live in comfort, like Ratty and Moley in Wind in the Willows. There would have been some practical difficulties. Planning permission would have been tricky. Planners have very little romance in their souls, if indeed they have souls, when it comes to underground dwellings in the woods. Damp-proofing and carbon monoxide poisoning would have presented problems. Owls and rustling in the undergrowth at night, would have frightened me to death. I stayed at home.

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The master-plan was to sneak into The Cane Wood on Milverton estate, steal some bamboos for spears, fishing rods, bows and arrows and steal away again, over the stile into Hattons’ Wood and along the beaten track through the forest, until we came to the corner. We could emerge with our spoils at that point and saunter across the fields to the railway station and home in triumph. There was a slight hitch. We heard a shot. The landowner and some of his murderous lackeys were out to kill us. It was just after the war, when such things were of trivial importance. Boys in school said that he drove around in a jeep, shooting at all intruders. A jeep? What’s a jeep? The Yanks had them in the war. We ran. My short legs could not keep pace with my two older brothers. ‘Come on! Come on!’ We came to the corner of the wood. They lifted me down a vertiginously high stone wall. I remember the neatness and precision of the blocks close to my face. My brothers held me by both hands.  We ran and we ran, through hedges, across streams and railway tracks, never stopping until we had gained the relative safety of our back garden. We hid in the shed, listening for the rattle of jeeps and and the barking of orders. It seems that they lost the trail. I still recall the terror and also the tenacity and courage of my brothers who dragged me to safety, when they also must have been afraid.

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You can still tell Milverton land by the cut stone gate pillars and the stylish cut stone stiles. I went back in later years to marvel at the high wall that I had overcome. It was no more than three feet high. I went back yesterday morning to catch the sunrise over Skerries. The wood is impenetrable. The wall is obscured by thirty feet of briars and thorn bushes.The wall and the memory of our amazing escape from death, lie secure forever, behind behind that barrier. The two windmills were directly in line. A sailor told me that if you keep the two windmills in line, you will avoid the reef at the southern end of Saint Patrick’s Island. That’s good to know, even when standing in the middle of a stubble field, just enjoying the view.

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A fox broke from the cover of the wood. He startled me.  He ran across the lower end of the stubble field. He flowed, with the grace of a jaguar and vanished into a hedge far below me. There was no need for him to run. I would never have chased him with spears and arrows or hounded him from his home. In another life we might have been neighbours in Hattons’ Wood. We might have sat together on the hill and talked of old times and woven our dreams and hopes and watched the daily miracle of the sun rising over Skerries islands. Good luck to you, fox, on life’s journey and may you sleep safely, wherever you lay your head at night.

Some corner of a foreign field. Irony. Rapture of the Deep.


For want of a nail…This is where Captain Cook came to grief. It seems that he refused to give any more nails to the native people. They took umbrage and killed him. There was a swordsman by his side, Molesworth Phillips, from Swords in County Dublin, a Royal Marine. Even Molesworth couldn’t save the great navigator. This small piece of Hawaii is British territory in perpetuity, in honour of the captain. Her Majesty could surely spare the man a flagpole and a flag. Maybe, of course,  the captain was trying to bring alien species into the island. They are very strict: ‘Are you carrying any snails or reptiles, Sir?’  Americans can use ‘Sir’ like a searchlight. ‘Step away from the car, Sir’ You know that you are nailed when you hear ‘Sir’. My brother in law was nabbed trying to bring Clonakilty black pudding to Florida. ‘Step away from the sausages, Sir.’  He’s not strictly my brother in law. There are no smugglers on my side of the family.

 Nails are precious things. I asked my neighbour, Milo if he had a couple of nails to spare. ‘Come into my nailery,’ he said expansively ‘and I’ll see what I can do.’ He had a drawer filled with dust and rusty nails. There were oval wire and round ones of many different sizes, straight and bent.  He had a little boat with a put-put outboard motor. It was held together by rusty nails. ‘Should you not use copper?’ I asked out of my ignorance. He looked at me pityingly, a landlubber, steeped in ignorance. ‘Nothing holds like a rusty nail.’  The nails made attractive, blue/grey patches on the wood. We went out to Saint Patrick’s Island , one summer evening. There was a big swell running. Put-put-put went the motor. Clang-clang-clang went my heartbeat. We lost sight of the horizon in every trough. We teetered on the crest of every wave. I looked longingly towards the distant land, the white flicker of surf and home, measuring the distance. I was the better swimmer.  Milo whistled, at ease in his natural element.

On another occasion we came around The Baily in a Fastnet 34. Fastnet! Get it? Hurricane? Major yachting disaster?  Simon le Bon’s keel snapping off?  The bolts sheered off under the force of the waves. Should have used rusty nails.  We were in a lumpy sea, with an easterly wind. I drew Milo’s attention to these coincidences, as the yacht dropped from a dizzying height, into a swirling abyss. ‘Huh,’ he muttered, intrigued and went below to put on the kettle. We were heading for a mark, with several other towering yachts converging on our course. I drew his attention to the situation. ‘Luffing rights,’ he remarked. Of course. Why didn’t I think of luffing rights?  ‘Luffing rights,’ he called to the rival skippers. They turned away.  It’s a phrase I keep in reserve for real emergencies.

Strangely for the Hawaiians, who had no concept of metallurgy, (hence the craving for nails) they host the Ironman World Championships every year.We went there to cheer on our son, Alan. He is a non-stop athlete. He did spectacularly well and continues to do so. No sign of rust there. We did the tourist things, like reef snorkeling at Captain Cook’s monument. When you put your head under the water, you could hear parrot fish, crunching at the coral. Apparently this is their sole source of food. Crrrunnnch-crrrunnnch  all day and all night, nibbling the island away. Fortunately the island is constantly re-built by the volcano. The Hawaiians were having a day off, when they named this island. It is the biggest of all the Hawaiian Islands. They called it Big Island. Our daughter once lived on Avenue Road in Acton.  Adam called flies flies because they…. Must try harder. 


The parrot fish are down there somewhere, crunching away. The reef falls away into vertiginous depths. They talk of rapture of the deep, but that is brought on by gas. There is a rapture brought on by the strange colours, the sense of weightlessness, the myriads of fish, the story of the people and their relationship with the ocean. History. I decided to swim over and pay my respects to Captain Cook and the Swords man. I clambered out onto the reef. A voice, magnified by a loud-hailer called out:  ‘Sir. You are forbidden to stand on the reef.’  It was the skipper of our ‘rib’ an intimidating young  American woman. I slithered back into the water like a hunted cousteau and merged with the other flotsam. I imagined that I could hear the parrot fish tut-tutting, the hypocrites.


I should have shouted ‘luffing rights.’  I could have pointed to the activities of the parrot fish. It was pointed out to me afterwards that, as a citizen of the European Union and pursuant to the Treaty of Rome, The Schengen Agreement, the Maastricht Treaty, the Single European Act, ratified by all the member nations, guaranteeing freedom of movement  et cetera and cetera, I am entitled, as an Irish and E.U. citizen, to enter Britain or any other E.U. country, without let or hindrance. I could have, but I wasn’t carrying any copies of the relevant treaties at the time. I was wearing Speedos, flippers and a face mask. If I had been carrying weighty copies of the treaties in my Speedos, I would have incurred even more suspicion from our imperious skipper.

In the Polynesian myths, the world stands on a pillar which stands on the back of a great turtle. It’s an analogy for islands that perch on top of pillars of volcanic rock. The coral grows only in the daylight near the top. The turtle moves from time to time. It’s a precarious world. I watched much of the race while perched on top of a plastic wheelie bin, with three or four other spectators. It was an excellent vantage point, until the lid began to soften in the heat and sag under our weight. I expected to be plunged ignominiously into the depths of the bin. I decided to get down. My right leg was dead from cramp. I fell to earth and hobbled around, trying to get back some circulation. It’s not funny but it makes you laugh all the same. Pins and needles. Like rapture of the deep only drier. Alan was doing fine. It was all bloody fine for him. He had trained for it; pumping iron, iron enriched food supplements or whatever.


Captain  Cook was dispatched with a wooden club or spear, probably ironwood. Milo’s boat was shattered on the beach in a sudden storm. The nails gave up the ghost. My neighbour lost one of his good shoes in attempting to rescue it. It is probably still bobbing around the Hebrides or’ the still-vexed Bermoothes,’ the shoe, not the boat. John Kingston’s legendary hardware shop had the world’s greatest nailery. You could buy one or a bucket full.   The shop exploded one night, in a most astonishing conflagration of paint, timber, gas cylinders, bitumen, roofing felt, oil, insecticides, fertilisers, wall-paper, glue, (even one called No-More-Nails), tools, nuts, bolts and anything you could think of. John had it all. It laid a heavy swag of smoke across the strand and all the way across the sea to the horizon and Saint Patrick’s Island, where Milo sailed his little boat.  He was a great mariner who would never refuse a person a nail or a favour.

Even without Saint Patrick, there are no snakes in Hawaii. No Sir.  I drive to Swords nowadays to buy nails.

When I nibble shortbread biscuits, I hear the parrot fish.

Churches moving with the times

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I was always intrigued by this structure on the South Strand, with its Gothic appearance and its decoration of seashells. A girl told me that she saw a monk walking out of the wall, late one night. ‘He just walked out of the wall and then he disappeared. It’s true.’  I was prepared to believe anything she told me, at the time. I was even prepared to go back there late some other night, but alas!  no joy. A friend who collected beetles, said that the biggest ‘clocks’ were found in that old ruin. He kept them in matchboxes and brought them to school. They ticked like clocks, but they had no practical use that I know of. They had no trade value for chestnuts or marbles. They had no nutritional value…I hope. Despite their name, they can’t even tell the time. Maybe it was the thrill of climbing over the wall into forbidden territory, that made them valuable. The truth is that it isn’t a ruin at all. It is a nineteenth century garden ornament, a folly, perhaps. ‘Folly’ suggests foolishness, but what’s foolish about building a thing that intrigues and pleases both the owner and passers-by?  Then there is the matter of the monk.


The extract from Walsh’s Fingal and its Churches, shows the ruin on Saint Patrick’s Island, as it was in  the mid nineteenth century. He mentions the synod of 1148, when fifteen bishops and five hundred priests attended, to set the Irish church to rights. Think of the logistics and the catering. That little boat in the drawing must have been plying back and forth day and night. You couldn’t feed five hundred and fifteen devout clerics on birds’ eggs, a few crabs and  a sprinkling of winkles. However, they got the job done and things have been grand ever since. Augustinian monks rebuilt the monastery and hung on there for a few centuries, but eventually, they packed it in and moved to Holmpatrick, on the mainland. Henry VII moved them on again. You can see the memorial stone of the last abbot, Peter Mann, at the corner of the old tower.   A group of Hippies proposed setting up a commune on the island in the 1960s. A tidal wave of depravity threatened to overwhelm the God-fearing people of Skerries. The Hippy leader even had a beard, for God’s sake. What more provocation could we take? Thumbscrews and the stake would have been too good for them. Logistics and the weather deflected the danger in the long run.

Another 19th century account of the island, describes the ruin and tells how a Scotsman named Cochrane, who lived in Seapark, ploughed the island for cultivation. He found a great many gravestones which he threw over the cliffs. Bloody vandal!  He also removed  a stone coffin, which he brought to the mainland and used as a horse trough. Moreover, he took large quantities of the tufa stone from the church, to make garden rockeries and ornaments. Tufa is a form of porous limestone, not to be confused with tuff , a porous volcanic rock, sometimes referred to as tufa. Right? That’s all clear then. (I will ask questions later.) That porous stone on the ‘ruin’ is tufa. It is quite beautiful, with its seashells and its sense of unimaginable time. Archaeologists might not agree. Maybe the ghostly monk just visits there for old time’s sake.

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(Image courtesy of Image Depot, Skerries.)

Everyone knows this picture of the real ruin on the island, with its photograph of Saint Patrick. A great deal has fallen away since Walsh wrote about it. It is still impressive, a dry-stone ruin covered in vivid lichen. It would look well at the bottom of the garden. Throw in a few ‘clocks’.  Some nice bits of tufa there too. Make a handsome rockery. I promised questions:

1 Do you know where that stone coffin/horse trough is? I have a frustrating, vague notion that I remember it somewhere, at the side of the street, perhaps beside a pump.

2  a)Have you any tufa in your garden?  b) Have you seen a monk pooching around in your rockery, late at night?

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The late Jack Grimes told me that he and his brother, Fran, built this wall from the stones of the old church, that was replaced in 1938. Nothing goes to waste. It stands up proudly against the elements. They built it mainly with the  dry-stone technique. ‘Vinnie Gowan from The Gladstone Inn, used to bring us a crate of stout, now and again.’ It is a great vantage point for surveying the beach and the town. In recent years it has had a few patches but the lichens and weeds have blended the concrete into the older structure. Well done, lads.

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Rosy-fingered Dawn

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Equinox, March, September. 

The Greeks as always, had a phrase for it, Eos Rhododactylos, Rosy-fingered Dawn.  They also had a myth to express the wonder of the Sun rising every day. Eos, the goddess of the dawn. opens the gates of heaven to let the horses of the Sun gallop out into the sky. Homer used this as the prelude to the epic events of the day. We are more prosaic. We don’t buckle on our armour and go to battle,’far on the ringing plains of windy Troy. We don’t vie with heroes or drag our conquests behind our chariots in victory. The last time that Irishmen went to battle near Troy was in 1915, at Gallipoli. They had no epic poet to celebrate their deeds. The poets of their war soon learned that there was little to celebrate. They were the sad young men who have left a legacy of grief and loss.

An old Skerries man, interviewed about his experience of Gallipoli, spoke of an attack that soon degenerated into a squalid fight with bayonets. ‘We were hard at it till evening.’ For all Homer’s enthusiasm and that of his successors and imitators, for entrails and blood, there was no glory in that old man’s war. I recall him standing silent and glum, at his door, for most of my childhood years. He had a vacant look in his eyes, but I’m sure he saw Gallipoli all the days of his life.  

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Christmas Day

A lesser poet than Homer, Theo Dorgan, voiced a universal truth. He was asked about his favourite song. ‘Any song that starts with Well, I woke up this morning…he replied. Is waking up not an epic achievement in its own right? We travel alone for hours in the realm of dreams and darkness . Sometimes we experience joy and laughter. Sometimes we meet our parents or long lost friends. Sometimes we travel to places of terror or absurdity. Then we return, with the gradual light of dawn, like Ulysses returning to his Ithaca, after long wanderings and adventures in strange places. No wonder the Australian Aborigines talk about their time of myth and unimaginable antiquity as The Dreamtime.

A myth takes hold of people and conditions their thinking. The Australians and New Zealanders cling to the story of Gallipoli. It shapes their view of themselves. They find a kind of victory in a bloody defeat. We are entering a decade of commemoration of the violent events that shaped the century. If there is talk of victory and glory, think of that old Skerries man standing at his door.

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The equinoctial Sun rises, for me, over Shennick Island to the east.The mid-winter Sun manages to heave itself over the south-eastern horizon, near Lambay. I watch it beginning its return journey, as the world tilts again towards the light, an inch every day. It is no wonder that the ancients saw it as a god. No wonder that the consummate artist, Turner, declared the Sun to be  God. On a dark, damp, November morning, it does no harm to think of the goddess, Rosy-fingered Eos, opening the gates of heaven over Saint Patrick’s Island, away to the north -east, after a few fleeting hours of luminous darkness. In the meantime, while I wait for summer and pre-dawn birdsong through open windows, I’m glad that I woke woke up this morning.