Eminent Professors, Old News and A Wizard Wheeze.


The Robinsons lived in a pink cottage at Milverton. There were trellised roses wreathed around the cottage door. The garden was filled with herbs and flowers.  They had an orchard behind the house. It was a picture from Sweet Auburn, loveliest village of the plain. I remember a pretty girl in a check summer dress, standing amid the flowers and herbs. They abandoned their home shortly after the war and emigrated to England. The cottage fell into dereliction.

‘Near yonder copse where once the garden smiled/ and still where many a garden flower grows wild…’ She still stands there in my memory. As boys, we went in to investigate the orchard. The cottage door was hanging off. We found that the clay walls had been covered with newspapers, overpainted with distemper. The damp had loosened them. We could read the ancient news still preserved on the back of the paper. There is still no news of the girl in the check summer dress.

Oliver Goldsmith, possibly Ireland’s best loved writer, stated that he loved old things,old books, old friends, old houses, old wine. I don’t think he mentioned old newspapers. Do you recall how you would set out to light a fire with twists of newspaper? You were possibly kneeling down beside the hearth, beginning to bunch up an old paper. Your eye caught a news item that you had missed at the first, hurried reading. Maybe a cartoon. Emil Zatopec got into trouble for supporting The Prague Spring– one little stick man remarking to another: “I never thought that Emil Zatopec would move too fast for the Czechs.” A classic Tom Matthews cartoon—Two men sitting at a table, observing a bearded man in a pointy hat and a cloak decorated with stars and planets. The strange man is bent double, in a paroxysm of coughing. ‘Kaf, kaf!!’ One man says to the other: “Just listen to this wizard wheeze.” If you read Biggles or indeed The Wizard, you will understand the joke. features-goldsmith-full

Goldsmith died at the age of forty six. He is still remembered for the lost world of his deserted village. “Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey; where wealth accumulates and men decay.” Bang up to date. I read that the NAMA boys are back in town, scattering their millions around like confetti. Goldsmith should have taken some Phyllosan tablets..’to protect the family after forty. Formulated by an eminent professor of medicine…’  No name or qualifications given. He is eminent. No list of ingredients. How dare you ask? Don’t you see that he is an eminent professor? Professors are always eminent. Judges are always learned. Doctors are always good. Explorers are intrepid. This advertisement is from the Irish Times of  November 2nd 1942.

Under the linoleum in Leo Flanagan’s former house, I found a treasure trove of newspapers from 1942. The Germans are doing well at Stalingrad. The Allied forces are massing at el Alamein. The newly reconstituted Medical Registration Council  held its first meeting, A recommendation for the reduced use of alcohol in drugs was adopted, as a wartime economy measure. Remember Gripe Water for babies. It was mostly alcohol with a subtle after-taste of elderflower. I doubt if Leo ever needed Gripe water or Phyllosan. He coped well with the wartime economy measures by owning a pub. The Council declined to strike off the name of Dr. Patrick Joseph Conlin for convictions ‘outside Eire’ on charges of being drunk and disorderly—fined 20/s and 10/s on two occasions. Presumably the good doctor was warned to observe the wartime economy measures while in Eire. I bought a bottle of green tonic from a friendly pharmacist—overwork and stress. (I was twenty one.) Two spoonfuls in the morning. Great stuff. The size of the spoons wasn’t specified. I took a few more during the day. It tasted great. My stress evaporated. Then I read the label. It had more alcohol than even Gripe Water. Shurely shome mishundershtanding.

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Goldsmith is deservedly commemorated by a Summer School in his native Pallas in County Longford. We probably know him better from the statue outside Trinity College, where he stands beside the great orator Edmund Burke. Summer schools have proliferated throughout the land. They fill the news pages, during the silly season. They come up with wizard wheezes. Here’s one from an eminent professor at the McGill summer school last week: Old people living in houses adjudged to be too big for them, should be punished by higher property taxes and made to move to smaller units of accommodation. This would ‘free up’ more units at a time of shortage. I hesitate to demur, because of the eminence of the professor. I might end up in front of a learned judge. So this is how it works: You struggle to buy, maintain and hold onto a house in which to raise your family. (‘You’ is usually plural, as in ‘the masculine embraces the feminine’.) You cope with fluctuating interest rates of up to twenty two and a half percent. (Thank you, Bertie.) You may welcome old friends or new grandchildren to your house. You may cultivate and enjoy a garden. You may sit in the sun or read a book. You count your blessings……… You are selfish bastards. That house should be confiscated.

One set of experts speaks of keeping old people in their homes, rather than in expensive nursing homes, where they are obliged to watch Scooby Doo all afternoon. I hate Scooby Doo. I hate not having any say over the use of the remote control. (Do you remember the bad old days, when you had to get up out of your chair to change the channel?) I would vote for euthanasia rather than have to spend my declining years watching Scooby Doo. Let me live in my garden shed. Put me out in the snow for the wolves, but please, no Scooby Doo. It’s the same story every time…some villainous entrepreneur, disguised as a ghost, trying to scare people out of their property.  Wait a minute…

Those greedy villains in the above photograph have been in the news lately. They are driving people mad early in the mornings by dancing on the roofs and smashing crabs on the tiles, for breakfast.  They never shut up. Eminent experts have advocated a cull. Other learned experts have called for greater protection of the gulls. What about a cull of the disgruntled householders? Cheaper.  Especially the elderly. They can’t even run.


When Doctor Zhivago arrived home one evening, he found that his house had been confiscated  by the Communists to accommodate several families. This was the new order, explained the commissar. There was no argument. Zhivago shrugged. “Okay,” he said, or words to that effect. “That seems fair enough.” You don’t argue with commissars. He was in the paper a few weeks ago. He died at the age of eighty two. He must have been on the Phyllosan. Julie Christie is still looking all right. Would you turf her out of her home or leave her in the snow for the wolves? Nah!

Resist! Zimmer frames at the ready!

Sssnake Charmers, Saint Patrick and Child Labour

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One small step for a saint—a giant leap for Skerries. Okay, I borrowed that from Neil Armstrong. Just follow the (giant) green footprints and you will come to Saint Patrick’s footprint indented into the rock. This is where he began his mission to Ireland. It could be claimed that his footprint has worked many miracles over the fifteen hundred and eighty three years since he returned to begin his task . It could be claimed, but there can’t be any proof, because if you tell your wish to anyone, it will not come true.

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Tradition has it that he first came to Ireland as a child slave, forced to tend sheep on a bleak mountainside for many years. It is strange that he was never declared the patron of child labourers all over the world. The problem is rife. Many economies depend on the labour of children. My parents’ old friend, John O Halloran, spent much of his life in India. He told a charming story of children working in the carpet factories. They knotted the wool into the hanging frames of hessian while the company overseer walked up and down, singing the pattern and beating out a rhythm with his cane. Their little fingers were more suited to manipulating the intricate patterns, than the fingers of adults. No doubt he used his cane to stimulate productivity. That was in the days of The Raj and Empire. That was the natural order of things, when the world existed to supply the needs of the fortunate few. The little fingers still work, but now the companies are home-grown. How else could we, the fortunate, afford cheap goods from Third-World countries? Apologists for this situation will say that if we forsook these cheap goods, the poorer countries would have no income at all. It’s the economy, stupid. If it wasn’t for bad luck, they would have no luck at all. The children of the less fortunate, have no voice.

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John O Halloran also spoke of snake charmers and the Indian Rope Trick. Don’t try it at home. The fakir (sic) climbs up the unsupported rope and disappears. He saw gurus, lamas, holy men and other fakirs (sic) levitating. He saw sacred cows and scared cows, wandering through the teeming traffic. Saint Patrick took a more robust attitude to snakes. He put his foot down. He banished the whole bloody lot of them from the island. He missed a few fakirs (sic). Using the Tom Sawyer psychology and a promise of ice-cream, I enlisted some child labour to commemorate the banishment of the snakes. We attracted a few other little volunteers…with parental permission and a caveat about paint and good clothes. We painted a representative sample of the snakes fleeing from his footprint. We suffered minimal damage to clothes.  I was charmed by their chat and enthusiasm. They were delighted to paint on something other than paper. We may tender for a repaint of the Sistine Chapel ceiling next. It could do with a freshening-up.

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So that’s taken care of the snakes. Now for the ice cream. Mike was the overseer. He sang the pattern for a proper tub of ice cream. ‘Ferrero Rocher on the bottom; ice cream in the middle; marshmallows on top of that and smarties over the lot.’  Very satisfactory.  Always consult an expert. I still have some little snake painters who have to add their contribution and claim their wages.

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Some idiot bought Saint Patrick’s Island many years ago. He proposed selling the stones of the monastery as souvenirs. Saint Patrick put his foot down on that idea. You may visit him on his island but wear good boots and long trousers or you will be stung. There are no snakes, but nettles and thistles stand guard around the ruin. It would of course, be simpler to come to Skerries tomorrow and enjoy the parade. You will have no difficulty in finding the saint’s footprint, where you can make a wish….satisfaction guaranteed…. but sssssssh!  Nobody may know. I saw an advertisement in the Sunday Times yesterday where a man is selling his twelve-foot-long Burmese python, because his wife wants the room as a nursery for their new baby. Wouldn’t you fear for the baby? Burmese pythons, he says, can grow to a length of sixteen feet.  Now there’s a case for banishment and I don’t mean only the snake.

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Definitely some ice cream required here in a hurry.