crescent moon 004

It was worth getting out of bed to see the sliver of moon over the sea. Venus was nearby. It was even better that I caught a glimpse of the space station too, a speck of light in the immensity of the void. There are people up there, also enjoying the dawn. They enjoy it numerous times in the twenty four hour cycle. The spacecraft got away, before I could find my camera. That was the cardinal rule of photography….’Don’t move!  Now you’ve ruined it.’  Children with speed streaks and bird wings instead of arms. Faces blurred, as memory blurs. The space station moved, but the moon gave me a few minutes’ grace. I thought of George Clooney’s film, Up in the Air, billed as a comedy, but bleak and lonely in its conclusions, a winking speck of light in the night sky, to signify his passing. George came to mind again, in Gravity, suave as a coffee advertisement, schmoozing his way through a spaceship crisis. Planets and asteroids swam past in the blackness. Did he get the girl or did they just drift apart, like so many couples? I don’t know. Coffee should keep you awake, but I dozed off, lulled by the magnificent special FX. (We say FX in movieland instead of effects.  Effects, Effects! Write it out twenty times, boy.) I once fancied his Auntie Rosemary. Is it ok to fancy someone’s auntie?

When asteroids threaten the Earth and all the wonderful variety of life that flourishes on it, there is no need to worry. Hollywood springs into action. Hardy men and some good looking women, in figure hugging space suits, heavenly bodies, are dispatched to intercept them and blast them to smithereens, or deflect them away from our gravitational pull. Nations come together in the hour of need. We realise that we all share a common humanity. We gaze skywards at the approaching apocalypse. We watch, via space telescopes, the tumbling, cratered, mass of rock,  whizzing out of deep space, heading directly for Washington, New York, Los Angeles, London.  Nothing to worry about. It’s special FX.  Nevertheless, I’m glad that I don’t live in any of those places. Monsters, Martians, Aliens, Plagues, Giant Ants, Killer Bees, always head for places with photogenic landmarks. Big Ben…bowoing, bowoing. Washington Monument…photo opportunity for the President. Even the Sun went on the blink once and had to be re-ignited by thermonuclear devices delivered by intrepid astronauts. A damn close-run thing.

I saw an asteroid once, many years ago, before Sputnik bleeped its way into our consciousness; before Goonhilly Downs bounced television pictures into space and down again, on the other side of the Atlantic; before Yuri Gagarin astonished the world. The asteroid came at me in slow motion.  (Slo-mo, I understand, in Movieland.) No simulation there. It tumbled and grew in my vision, a sinister black mass, bigger and bigger with every nano-second. I had plenty of time to take evasive action but I had no time to decide. It was thrown by a classmate after a frank exchange of views, on the way home from school. I had time to marvel at his skill. I had time to fear that it might hit one of the petrol pumps in the Caltex garage. There were glass valves on the pumps, where you could see the petrol surging through. If it hit the glass, a Niagara of petrol would gush forth and flow down the hill, towards the school. We would all be incinerated. The school would be incinerated. There would be trouble then. I hoped it wouldn’t hit the glass. It didn’t. It was a brilliant shot. It got me right on the temple. I saw stars and supernovae, the rings of Saturn, Jupiter’s moons. I slid into a black hole.I heard alien voices from beyond our galaxy.

“He’s gone up through Ruigrok’s field. We can catch him at the mill.”

My companions seemed to think that this was a good idea. I went along with them…on wibbly-wobbly legs and right enough, we homed in on the culprit, the miscreant, at the mill. A fight was inevitable. Honour must be satisfied. I had no wish to fight. I actually liked the chap. I already had a lump on my head, quite enough to be going on with, at the time. I was bleeding spectacularly.Right was undoubtedly on my side, but my knees were letting me down. He wore glasses, so I couldn’t punch him in the face. There were rules, in those days…before Bruce Lee made kicking and hitting below the belt, acceptable in polite circles. Ah, so!

Three black-robed figures hove into sight. Time lords from a passing starship. Eh, no. They were three nuns taking their daily constitutional, my father’s cousin among them. Divine intervention.

“Stop that at once, you boys!” We had only reached the shoulder pushing stage. “Go home now or I will speak to your parents.” That was enough. In the nick of time. You don’t argue with time lords.

We parted with many backward glares and muttered threats, but nothing ever came of it. That was sixty three years ago, if I am not mistaken. I had a few drinks with him in later years. We sorted out the world and probably the universe, but the asteroid attack was forgotten. I recall that he was critical of De Gaulle. ‘Je vous ai compris,my arse.’ I met him the other day. He looks a bit shook. I wonder if I could take him…Ah, never mind.

February sunrise 2014 003

In the time it took to sort out the camera, all these blurred memories came into sharp focus. Photographs on the wide screen, the Imax, the Vista Vision, the Todd A O, of memory. The space station was gone. Venus and the cuticle of new moon had yielded to the greater light, Helios, Sol, The Sun. He’s looking well. No need for re-ignition. Another day.

Skerries National School about 1947. The wrong end of the stick.

Step together, boldly tread

Firm each footie, wrecked each head.

Let these Cajuns  quick and clear,

Sound like music on the ear.

Steady boys and step together.

Form like deer on mountain heather.

Left, right, left right .

Steady boys and step together.

Left, right. left, right,

Steady boys and step together.national school circa 1947 012

We sang this song while marking time on ‘The Line’, before marching around the yard and back into class. It should have been ‘erect each head’ but that was how I picked it up. ‘Wrecked each head’ makes a kind of sense. There were no Cajuns either. ‘Let each cadence’…whatever that meant. I quite like Cajuns, with their spices and their wild fiddling. A close inspection with a powerful lens, may disclose similarities to the stance of deer on mountain heather.

I recall the day on which this photograph was taken. I can see the photographer setting up his enormous wooden camera. It stood on wooden legs taller than any of us.. The photographer, a small stooped man, stooping being part of the art, went in and out of a black tent, making subtle adjustments. Sometimes he came out front and changed a lens. ‘Don’t move,’ he warned. We froze.It is difficult to hold a pose or an expression. ”Don’t move,’ said the teacher. We trembled. Nobody said ‘Smile,’ on one of the happiest days of our lives. It was an anti-climax, a click and dismissal back to class. ‘Don’t talk,’ said the teacher. We didn’t.

People have remarked on how sad those little boys look. Some are wary, as if anticipating the trials that life was to set them. One or two are almost smiling, ( against regulations.) They are still smiling, cheerful men by nature. I should tag the boys in the picture, by name, but that’s a trick I haven’t learned yet. I will have to ask my grandchildren. So here goes:

Front row, from the left; 1 Gerry Ellis,2 Terry Doyle,3 Don’t know,4 Hugh Canning,5 Eddie Hughes

Second row.  1 George Hand. 2  ? McGealy 3 ? Ellis 4 Paddy Landy 5 Hugh Ryan 6 Jimmy Coleman 7 Harry Loughrey 9 Don’t know

Third row. 1 Paddy Griffin 2 John Grimes 3 Frank Dillon 4 John Tyndall 5 Don’t know 6 Basil Bissett 7 Brian Beggs 8 Johnnie Casey

back row. 1 Denis Ryan 2 Philip Ryan 3 Don’t know 4 Andy Radley

I am open to correction on these names. Put my mistakes down to the passage of time.

The thing is, I do know the boys, whose name have slipped away from me. They were all important people. They brought news every day and arguments. We had fights and hotly contested games of marbles and conkers.  We wore short trousers and shivered when winter came to our badly heated classroom. We wore blue stuff and violet stuff on knees, fingers and toes, for scabs and chilblains. You never see chilblains nowadays. I believe they were the product of inadequate diet. Hugh Canning had a special prayer for success. He said it quietly before a game of marbles. He very generously told it to me, but I had not faith. Deep down I felt that the Lord God of all the Universe, Who daily governs the movements of the heavenly spheres, should have better things to do with His time than weighing in to a game of marbles. Did God really care who had the most mebs, glassiers, taws or steelers? Hugh cleaned me out every time. I wish I could remember that prayer.

Look at the little boy on the left,  in the back row. He was not in our class, but he was let come into the photograph, because he couldn’ t be separated from his older brother. See how he is clutching his brother’s arm.  They lost their father in an air tragedy. They faced a cold and harsh world together. Paddy Landy did not have things easy, but he made a lot of music in his time. I picked spuds with Jimmy (Apple) Coleman. He would always say, ‘That’s a brave day.’ He taught me a lesson. There was a spud fight. Jimmy objected strongly to the waste of food. ‘You’ll folly a crow for a spud some day.’ In later life, Brian Beggs always addressed me as ‘young Ryan.’ I came to appreciate that greatly. Paddy Griffin would drop in over our garden wall, with plans for expeditions to The Cane Wood or the island or for making a soap-box car, or going to the threshing or investigating the Ballast Pit.  Johnnie Casey brought Spanish chestnuts from Argillen. They were green, sour things. I didn’t know that you should roast them. They were exotic, so we ate them anyway.

Yesterday was All Souls’Day. Rain beat upon the window. Dead sycamore leaves whirled about in throngs. They induced melancholy thoughts.  On All Saints’ Day I had attended the funeral of a lady who had devoted her life to God, to the education of deaf children and to music. The church was filled with elderly ladies of a similar vocation. I felt sad for them. In the modern world they see their life’s work denigrated by suspicion and resentment, or mocked  and trivialised by the strident coarseness of the hen-party. I felt winter closing in again. I looked at the photograph. Quite a few of those boys are gone.

Then I remembered the laughs. I heard our voices chanting Tables. Do children today learn tables by heart ? Is it all done by the magic of electronics? I heard the songs we learned from Jack Doyle. Irish songs..Slán go Deo le brón is buairt  Farewell forever to grief and sorrow…..I always wondered who Joe was.  Maidin i mBéara, sung to the tune of Danny Boy. I was prevailed upon to sing an Irish song in a pub full of Welshmen, look you. ‘Sing one of the ones that Jackser taught us.’ I dredged it up from the pit of memory. My voice has cracked. I could never reach that high note near the end. I did my best. The Welshmen smirked. One of them stood up immediately afterwards and sang Danny Boy. He sang it to perfection, in a pure tenor voice, a voice that surely rang through the valleys and in the chapel, see. He hit that high note bang on. He sat down to loud Welsh applause, studiously not looking in my direction. He was very good. Welsh prat.

I remembered the games of Bulls, which entailed chasing and crashing into people and Broken Gates which entailed chasing and crashing into people. I remembered comics, read furtively under the desk and sweets and jokes and all the important things we discussed. Maybe things were not so bad. I taught a good many of their children over the years. I often saw the fathers I had sat beside, in the faces of their sons.

The sun came out. I felt better. I still know my tables. I know a few songs and some shreds of poetry. I’m not great with technology, but there is always someone who can help. My three year old grandson showed me a game on his mother’s i-phone. It was less violent than Bulls.  He knew how to work it. Nobody taught him. ‘I will ring you on Skype’, he said when they were leaving. It’s a brave new world.

A friend took me for a flight in his helicopter. We flew over Wicklow. There they were—deer on mountain heather. They stood tall and proud, just like my classmates in The Nash in 1947.