Prepositions and Preposterous Rules. Churchill and Carparks.

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The sound of the bell was probably the first sound  I was aware of. Sorry, ‘of which I was aware.’ I was born in the square house immediately across the street from Saint Patrick’s Church in Skerries. The house is marked for demolition at some point in the near future, as is the rusty-roofed one to the left and Mrs Behan’s tall house to the right. Mrs Behan was in attendance on the night I was born on. There I go again. ‘the night on which I was born.’ My mother, a linguist and teacher of languages for many years, forgot herself. “It’s a terrible world to bring a child into.” ‘Into which to bring a child.’ Write it out fifty times. I said nothing at the time. I had to take this story on trust, at a later date. I later heard that Mr. Churchill stated: “That is a construction up with which we will not put.” There were many things up with which he did not put at the time. I consulted the Irish Times, some seventy years later. I nearly said ‘later on.’ My mother was right. A bloody, awful world then and for many people, still a bloody and awful world, especially for children.

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Mr Churchill told the House that there was ‘no point in calling for explanations at every turn in this dangerous struggle.’  Air attacks on shipping; The Duce is confident; The French (Vichy) are defending their political interests in Syria; Aftermath of the bombing of the North Strand in Dublin; British and French (Free French/De Gaulle’s forces) now only sixteen miles from Damascus; A gift of half a million dollars of Red Cross funds and two freighters of food to Éire from the United States. 15,000 British killed in Crete. And so it goes on. Damascus, for God’s sake! Two rival French armies fighting to retain Syria? A terrible world and a mad and bloody world. I wonder if those freighters made it across the Atlantic. I wonder if I got any of that food. Food was a constant preoccupation in those days. Irish children are much taller nowadays. You don’t hear of rickets, chilblains or infantile paralysis any more.There were great advances in medicine during that war. Doctors got plenty of practice.

There was a right-wing Catholic organisation called Maria Duce. An inspired choice of names. Their newspaper was called FIAT. Nothing to do with Mussolini or Italian motor cars. Fiat: Let It Be Done.  Mary as Leader. Their particular line was that Article 41 of the new Irish constitution, guaranteeing the ‘special position’ of the Catholic Church, should be ‘enforced.’ All non-Catholics should be expelled from Ireland. There are people in Syria today with similar ideas and worse. Rudolf Hess in England. Mr. Churchill was asked if Herr Hess had brought any proposals with him ‘to solve the problems of Europe.‘  ‘Are not the people of Britain entitled to know what these proposals might be?’  ‘I have no statement to make to the House on this matter.’ (Cheers). Refreshingly direct. I didn’t read all this on the night I was born on…or whatever. After a  lifetime of reading The Irish Times, I have almost given up on it because it is always so glum, censorious and downright negative. Maybe the fault is mine. Maybe the news is on a loop and it is still a terrible world. However, the luxury of Viyella weekend shirts, for men’s lighter moments, golfing, cycling, gardening or just plain lazing; 16/6; with their brighter colours and attractive patterns, provided some relief to the general gloom. I have a couple of just plain lazing shirts to laze around in ..eh…in which to laze around.

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I take on trust the fact that the garden gave onto the Tennis Court Lane. I have no recollection of the garden or the house. My brother broke his arm in a fall in the garden and spent some time in Jervis Street Hospital. He developed a life-long hatred of potatoes during his stay. Bloody lucky to get potatoes, I say. And medical treatment. He fell over a garden roller. Somebody had at some time, laid a lawn there. Not my Old Man. ‘Gave onto’..Give in…give up……give away…ah! give over. More prepositions. There is a new school there. I wonder if the teachers give out as much as they used to. That is something into which I must enquire.  My Old Man gave out to me and my brother for making noise in Mr. Van Aalst’s shop. We had two round biscuit tins that made a satisfying, plangent noise when we pressed down on the lids. We had gone to collect a sugar ration, that my mother wanted to make blackberry jam with. (Full of vitamins…and pips.) Mr.Van Aalst asked us to stop. We grinned, daring each other to continue. We played a little counterpoint. The consequences were grim. He told our parents. We got a hiding and were skull-hauled down to apologise to Mr. Van Aalst. I think Mr. Van Aalst was a Jewish refugee from Holland. In another place we might well have got a pat on the head from our parents. I am still quite proud of their instinctive reaction. They couldn’t do that nowadays. They had no time for Maria Duce either or their little Italian motor car. (The foregoing should of course, read ‘ with which my mother wanted to make jam.’) Her inadvertent misplaced preposition in June 1941, left me maimed for life by an anxiety about syntax, punctuation and grammar. Should the Viyella shirts refer to ‘men’s lighter moments’ or mens’ lighter moments’? Apostrophes are also things that people have difficulty with….

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That dark line marks the old boundary between the townlands of Skerries and Holmpatrick. I was born in Holmpatrick. That makes me a Southsider. In Dublin that would have a special cachet and a special accent. I know a man, of my own age, who was conceived in Clontarf, born dead on Butt Bridge and revived in Holles Street Hospital. This made him, uniquely, both a Southsider and a Northsider or neither. He has devoted his life to music and harmony. He has made the world a better place. His accent is pleasantly unaffected, due to his unusual coming into the world…twice.

My parents came to Skerries in 1939 because they feared that there was going to be a war. They feared that Dublin would be bombed. They were right. More correctly, they were correct. They wanted to ensure that they could get fresh milk for the children. It proved to be a good move. They settled here. We , by and large, have stayed here. It is a good town to put down roots in. It has been a good town for Margaret and me, in which to raise a family. (Not ‘Margaret and I’ by the way. You wouldn’t say ‘for I to raise a family’ etc. Oh, never mind.) I tend to look back on birthdays and reckon up the good things that have happened over the years. That garden is now a car park. The motor car is king. The house is derelict. I feel no sentimental pangs. I left that house at the age of one. My memories of it are second hand.

Our grandchildren are growing. Our eldest grandchild finished her secondary education yesterday. Now that’s a significant landmark. She magicked us into grandparents. We brought her to nursery school and collected her. We have seen her grow. Margaret made all the cakes for her significant occasions and for those of her siblings and little cousins. It has been a wonderful experience. She intends making a career in music. May she always spread harmony and make the world a better place..

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The sun did shine, even in the 1940s, despite what you may have heard.

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The house looks better from the front….but where did all those cars come from? Or, from whence came all those cars?

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Abstruse Mid-winter Thoughts.

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It would be poor courtesy indeed to stay in bed when visitors come from far away in wintertime. I have been watching them for some time, going about their business with outstretched necks and urgent, purposeful flapping of wings as they cast around for the best feeding grounds. They look out for one another and wait for those who lag behind. They converse in low, sonorous muttering. They keep watch.  I got out of bed. I hoped to see them against the mid-winter sunrise.  There were only two, far out to sea. I was too early. I was too late. The sun was coming up near Lynches’ Point. There was a curlew probing speculatively at the tide line. When you hear the curlew, I was told, it means rain. Not a peep out of him.

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Then they came, a raft of geese paddling in the shallows, waiting for the tide to drop, for the weedy stones to reveal themselves. It was like a blessing, a gift to warm a cold December morning. They have come from a land of almost interminable night and bitter cold, to over-winter with us, to mutter and complain like us and make the best of things.  We complain about the dark evenings and the short days, the terrible things that are happening in the world, the dismal news. We turn our collars up. We make soup and light the fire. We don’t know how lucky we are.

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(Photo courtesy of Fergus)

This is a world where children are dismembered on an industrial scale, by men devoted to some implacable god; where Syrian children starve in the snow because rational thought is punishable by death; where whole societies are devastated by disease and natural disasters; where the down-trodden Irish, ‘the Most Oppressed People…Ever’, take to the streets to protest against paying a few bob for clean drinking water. A sense of proportion? What do you think?

Sometimes, on the way to Malahide for music lessons, we see a sports field covered with prattling geese. They come in off the estuary at high tide, to rest and confer. At other times the field is occupied by children at play. The geese know how precarious  a thing it is to bring children into the world and literally launch them into independent life. Their chicks leap from vertiginous cliffs, trying to reach the safety of the water. They fall prey to the skua and the snuffling silver fox. They may be dashed on the rocks or snatched by lurking seals. Despite the witterings of the fatuous ‘Nature Poets’, it’s a cruel world.

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(Also courtesy of Fergus. Colour photography in a black and white world.)

The Guinness people show us a world of black and white, snow drifting down on the Custom House, Christmas revellers and bells ringing. The amiable man passing by, smiles benignly on the world. I like a black pint with a white head on it. We went to hear our grand daughters playing in a Suzuki concert in the Moyne Institute in Trinity College, on Saturday last. The building was endowed by Lady Grania, daughter of Lord Moyne, a member of the Guinness family. It is more than likely that you and your ancestors contributed a few bob to the cost and maintenance of the Moyne Institute. You may have strolled in My Lord Iveagh’s gardens or swum in the Iveagh Baths. You may remember The Lady Grania and The Lady Patricia  moored at Customs House Quay and the Guinness men trundling wooden barrels of stout over the cobble-stones to the sound of thunder.There was a hut beside Butt Bridge where breakfast was always sizzling. I was a mere student hurrying past to an early morning lecture. Don’t sell the sausages. Sell the sizzle. Advertising works.  What a thing it would be to work in Guinnesses and wear My Lord’s black livery! Now there are homeless people huddling under the elegant portico and a creepy famine memorial on the quay.

The concert began with an elegant soloist, a senior student. At each stage a younger group arrived and the seniors moved progressively up the double staircase, joining in the simpler pieces as they climbed, higher and higher, until the floor was occupied by tiny musicians with infinitesimal violins. They played together Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, seniors and beginners together, as it should be. I thought of all those who nurture the young, keep them safe and give them the gift of harmony. My mind wandered to the geese, navigating by the stars and launching their young from the cliff. I thought of the skua and the prowling silver fox. Hold your children a little tighter when you think of such things.

Dr. David Cabot, of Trinity College, tracked geese from Ireland to Greenland, by gps transmitter. He followed them on their mass migration, over the Hebrides, Orkney, Faroes, Iceland, to their summer breeding grounds. The pin-points on his screen stopped in Greenland, except for one. It moved slowly and mysteriously onwards, across the Davis Strait to the bleak island of Baffin. He investigated. The goose was dead. It lay in an Eskimo’s fridge-freezer. The transmitter continued to send a forlorn signal from its icy tomb.

I warned you of abstruse thoughts. Question 1: Who sold that fridge-freezer to the Eskimo? (I know. I know. I should say Inuit, but its an old idiom.) Question 2: Why is he/she not running the economy of this country?

Back Camera

Here’s a little fellow who got caught out by the cold, a lapwing. There was a time when they came in their thousands, their wings whiffling in the dusk as they alighted in Swarbriggs’ field. It was exciting to see the white underside of their black wings, glittering like foil,  as they descended from the gathering night. I can hear the piping as they called their name, one to another, pilibín pilibín. We tried to hunt them with catapults, but fortunately, with no success.

In five days, the world will teeter on its orbit and the sunrise will begin to inch back towards the north. Things will begin to look up again.

A new Year. We must hope for a better one.