Size is Relative. The Patter of Tiny Feet. Money Laundering. Brother Bernard and Showbiz.

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You pays your money and you takes your choice/chance. The view from the top is not quite staggering. Small children nowadays, are used to Legoland and Thomasland. They play in specially designed play zones, with enough slides and ladders to tire them out by bedtime. Worth every penny. The carnival amusements were here: chair-o-planes, dodgems, roundabouts and a carousel with horses galloping over an undulating course. There were hoopla stalls, a rifle range of sorts and even a ghost train. Infants rattled the steering wheels off wooden cars and lorries as they whizzed around and around, to screeches of fear and delight. There were occasional thimble-riggers and three-card-trick men to ensnare the gullible. Ensnared by a brilliant sales pitch, I bought a pack of trick cards. Ten of clubs! Ten of clubs! Which card have you picked? Ten of clubs! Amazing! Every second card in the pack was a ten of clubs. They were slightly smaller than the regular cards, so that the nimble fingers of the dealer could always find ten of clubs!! I couldn’t remember the patter. Nor could I find the ..which one was it again? Flop-sweat. Goddammit, I must be gullible.

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Build it and they will come. It’s true up to a point. The biggest bull-ring in South America was built in Colonia del Sacramento in 1910. The following year the government outlawed bull fighting. Timing is everything, as with conjuring, comedy and card tricks. They come to The London Eye because it is new. The view from aloft is quite staggering. There is no shuffling, except in the queue. You pays your money etc. They come to the Pyramids and the Colosseum because they are old.

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Roll up! Roll up! Will rubber-neckers of the future gaze in wonder at the rusted spokes of The Eye or buddleia sprouting from the ruins of Big Ben? Will a latter-day Barnum sell tickets to The Egress and The Incredible Floating Match on the Thames? Will they come and will they buy? Of course they will.  It’s all in the patter.  Poets will  inevitably, get in on the act. There now is but an Heap of lime and sand/For the Skriech-Owl to build her baleful Bower….All those(O Pity) now are turned to Dust/And overgrown with black Oblivion’s Rust.  A few coats of hammerite and a tarpaulin should get the carnival through the winter. Come along and join my heritage tour of the site, (for a modest fee). A few places still available.

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I fell for this one: miniscule human skeletons unearthed near The Boyne, not far from Drogheda. At last, archaeological evidence of The Wee Folk, The Little People, Leprechauns, if you will. Empirical proof that the Good People, The Fairies who lived underground and in our collective imagination, actually existed. The account was couched in scholarly language. The Boyne Valley is overflowing with legends and ancient ruins. Hundreds of thousands of tourists go there every year to gaze at the tombs and megaliths of ancient kings who lived before history began. Those were people who understood magic and the movements of the Sun and stars. The tourists come to wonder and most importantly, to buy tickets. There is no need to shout ‘Roll up! Roll up!’ They want to encounter the magic of antiquity. I wanted to believe. I wanted to see the Little People dancing by moonlight on the sands at Mornington. I wanted to hear their unearthly music sprinkling on the raths and tumuli of legend. The evidence showed that they ate fish and hunted moles. Moles? In Ireland? I should have smelt a rat. Goddammit, I must be gullible. Of course, the Fairies (not that I really believe in them) are noted for their trickery. Maybe this is the distraction technique beloved of conjurors, pick-pockets and three-card-tricksters. Maybe they put mole bones in their graves to deceive us into thinking that they were never there in the first place; that it is all a hoax. Maybe I’m not so gullible after all.

Brother Bernard was charged with raising funds for the building of a new school. The blood of the great Barnum flowed in his veins. There was a touch of gentility about him. He claimed to have taught Prince Rainier of Monaco. Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen. He organised concerts and played to packed halls. We had conjurors, comedians and opera singers.  We had Juno and the Paycock and John B. Keane.We had Charlie McGee and his gay guitar.  It was a miniscule Palace of Varieties. He bought a new piano for the school. He directed us to dispose of the old wreck of a piano  by throwing it off the fire escape. It went out with a bang, crash, tinkle, tinkle. Pure showbiz. I looked down at it. It had become an archaeopteryx fossil in the yard below, with bones and arpeggios in a pile and teeth scattered far and wide. We should have left it for the archaeologists to ponder over in times to come.

He sponsored the carnival and took a percentage. This meant that senior boys were expected to lend a hand. I collected pennies from children on roundabouts and swings. I originated ‘the Moon Walk’ later popularised by Michael Jackson. I hadn’t meant to do it, but sometimes the roundabout started before I had got to all the customers. I learned about how centrifugal force can hurl you off the spinning disc in ignominious fashion, if you don’t hold on, to the great amusement of the kiddies. I collected tickets at the door of the Wee Man’s tent. He was about two feet tall. He was dressed as a leprechaun. He sat on an upturned pint glass and endured the guffaws and ribaldry of the spectators. He laughed a lot. It was probably the saddest thing I had ever seen. I applied for a transfer to the chair-o-planes.

Brother Bernard’s piece de résistence was the clothes line with one hundred pound notes pegged to it. The raffle took place at midnight….every night, ladies and gentlemen. The line was raised to much fanfare and patter, early in the evening. People came to gaze. The dreams of avarice. The pot o’ gold.  He did more for temperance than Father Matthew, because the pubs emptied out early as everyone wanted to share in the dream. They believed. It could be you. Prince Rainier, with his palace and his film stars and his glittering casino and his suave dinner-jacketed guests and racing cars and mega yachts, wasn’t a patch on Brother Bernard. You can’t fool me. I never heard tell of any clothes-line with £100 notes, fluttering in the balmy Mediterranean night air. Them was the days, Joxer. Them was the days.

Rien ne va plus

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Monument Corner, Cowboys and Cornerboys.

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I heard an old actor,( correction, actore,) telling a story, perhaps apocryphal, about a translation of a Sean O Casey play, for a tour of Israel. A complaint from, I think, Captain Boyle, (he complained a lot) “Chisellers nowadays has no respect for their parents” was rendered into Hebrew as “Stone-cutters nowadays have no respect for their parents.” It loses something in translation. The stone-cutters who made The Monument had great respect for their craft and for their materials, translating Milverton limestone into a mini version of The Wellington Monument. It tells of the great respect and affection with which the tenants of James Hans Hamilton M.P. regarded him. It was a different time, as they say nowadays. Things were done differently, as they never tire of telling us. The late Christy Fox told me that when he was young, it was regarded as a patriotic duty to pull a railing off  The Monument. They were solid wrought iron, but over the years they became bedraggled and bent from the attentions of young lads. We could rotate some of them to the extent that they had gouged holes in the limestone. We could get inside and play hide and seek around the steps.  No respect.

As a very small chiseller, I too got lost there. My mother left me holding the handle of the pram, ‘minding the baby’, while she nipped into The Medical Hall, one of the businesses on the left. They had everything in there, in little mahogany drawers with brass handles and labels, although it was quite a while before I could read about the mythical contents. . They had myrrh! They had nard? They had manna, for Heaven’s sake. Maybe she nipped in for some frankincense. I nipped over to peer into the phone box. There were bus tickets and cigarette butts on the floor. The little windows were dirty. I struggled to open the door and go inside. I couldn’t reach the phone high up on the wall. I saw my mother coming out and looking around in panic.  I yelled but she couldn’t hear me. It was like shouting under water, like in a nightmare. The door was so heavy that it took me a while to open it. She must have concluded that I had wandered off towards home. It was the first time I ever saw my mother running.  She ran across the road and round the corner into Cross Street. She had abandoned me.  The world was suddenly a grim and frightening place. I bawled in terror and tried to catch her.

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There were two young boys sitting on a doorstep at one of the cottages on the left. It must have been a slow afternoon for amusement. I was manna from on high, a lost and weeping toddler. In the best traditions of Irish hospitality and helping the distressed traveller, one of them gave me a clout in the face. It made their day. I ran on, on legs too short for any speed, bleating like a lost lamb. I did a round of the block, past the Munster and Leinster Bank and down Convent Lane.  I spotted her with the pram, running past the end of the lane. Her distress was evident, even at a distance.  It was like Saint Aidan’s swallow flitting across the hall, from one window to another, out from darkness, a second in the light of life and back again into the black void of eternity. I yelled even louder. She came back, in freeze-frame. I ran to her. All was well even though she scolded me severely. I held on after that.

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What a vantage point it was to watch all the excitement of Strand Street. By the time the motor bike races began, the pump {Plate 1} at the corner had been relocated to the pavement. However exciting the motor bikes may have been, they could not compete with the hustle and bustle of a typical day’s traffic, two ‘oul’ ones’ and a pony trap. There should be a dog in the picture. There was always a dog. There should be a man on a bike. He had the street to himself from the invention of photography until the coming of the horseless carriage. Maybe he has  nipped into the Grand Hotel down at the end of the street, just for ‘the one’.  Maybe he has gone to get a shovel and brush to sweep up some of the dung for his garden. Note the finely chiselled, limestone kerbs. There are still a good few of them, resisting the advance of tarmacadam. Most of the cobble stones have been obliterated. The place is thronged with horseless carriages nowadays. When will the traffic get back to normal?

Click on Plate2 and you will see Duffs’ farmyard, right in the centre of the town. This was one of the remarkable features of old Skerries. I recall at least four farmyards along the main streets. Christy Fox explained to me the economic importance of the dung hill in an almost self-sufficient farming family. It was in the centre of the yard, where waste from, byre, stable and house, could be conveniently dumped. The pigs had the run of the yard. None of that oul’ health and safety to complicate peoples’ lives. As chisellers, we contributed to the economy by driving Duffs’ cows home to Strand Street in the evenings, for milking. We became cowboys because we were friends with Ronnie Duff.  Cowboys, not drovers. Drovers are shambling fellows with ash-plants, mis-shapen hats and mackintoshes. Cowboys strut. Cowboys run also, to shut gates along the way and drive the cows away from every lane and intersection, down Dublin Road, Hoar Rock or Cross Street.  Cowboys have to be nippy on the feet to avoid the splatters of dung from the plodding, waddling, sashaying, swaying, milk-laden animals.  An occupational hazard of the trail drive. All we lacked were horses and six-shooters. We lost our suburban garden gate thirty years ago. It rusted away. I felt a twinge of anxiety about what would happen when the cows came along. I could stand there on guard until the cows come home, if you know what I mean, and no cows will come splattering down the road to invade our garden and cavort around the lawn with their white rolling eyes and slobbering tongues.  They knew where they were going but they enjoyed the bit of diversion.

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As for our esteemed and benevolent landlord, he probably died from worrying about all those tenants and from a nasty case of stalactitis.  Perhaps the chisellers might come back and repoint the blocks, out of respect. He has got a new set of railings from the demolished Holy Faith Convent and also a colourful flower bed, not that  us cowboys would  have approved of flowers.

With regard to the clout in the ear in 1944, the young gentleman faded from my memory for many years. I encountered him in a bar half a lifetime later. I should have called him out and gunned him down in the dust for a low-down, side-windin’ bushwhacker, but there was no dust. I had left my shootin’ irons at home and he was a most genial and affable barman. Furthermore, he was about six foot six in height, with forearms like hams. I reckoned it was time to let the matter rest and mosey on down the trail, into the sunset.