Creeping like snail, unwillingly to school.


There was a man living ‘down the town’ who bought a house halfway up the Dublin Road, in order to avoid this stretch, on his walk to the train every morning. This is the bit where the road runs across a causeway between Nicky Ellis’s field on the right and Foxy Gowan’s on the left. There is no hiding from the wind and rain on this stretch of road. He said that this bit of road put him in a bad mood, before the day’s work even began. The move suited him. I never saw him in a bad mood. He liked gardening, fishing and sailing. He bought a handsome, bay-windowed house with Virginia creeper all over it. He reprimanded me in later life, for not pruning my roses, with  a strong hint that he would be back to inspect them. I did as I was told.


I hated that stretch even more, because the school lay at the bottom of the road. The school was cold and draughty too. The wind found every crack and ill-fitting window. However, it had to be endured. The problem was getting there. Halfway down on the left, McCarthys lived in a bungalow, with a garden and a wooden gate.I can’t remember the McCarthys but I remember their dog. A scrabble of claws on concrete, when he detected us on the way to school; a deep soul-shuddering ‘RORF RORF’ and a crash as he hit the wooden gate at speed.The latch leaped and jangled. Would the bolt hold? He was a boxer-great Dane-mastiff-wolverine cross breed. We called him Mong, short for Mongrel, the most insulting word we knew for a dog.  The happiness or otherwise, of the day depended on whether McCarthys’ gate was open or shut. If shut, we could mutter insults as we crept past. ‘Yah, Mong.’  If open, he would chase us out onto the road, snarling and snapping. If there had been cars, which there were not, it would not have mattered. Terror is blind. I hated him. I hate him still. If I go to Hell, in the next world, however undeservedly, it will be some consolation to see him roasting on a spit of flame. Of course he may be one of my tormentors. Not if there is any justice.  I shall stroll nonchalantly through the fields of fire and brimstone, to watch the devils turning him  over the fire. ‘Yah, Mong.’

The lesser problem in going to school, was the fact that my big brothers held me by either hand. They blamed me for going too slow. In fact, they were going too fast. My little legs could not keep pace. ‘Come on! We’ll be late for tables.’  Tables were the morning ritual, a musical acquisition of knowledge. ‘Seven sevens are fortynine, four shillings and one penny. Five tens are fifty, four shillings and tuppence.’ In fact it was syncopated to ‘fornapenny, fiveantwo,’ and so on. We were human comptometers, cash registers, almost computers, by the age of six or seven.  It is only when you translate the present money into real money, do you realise that a Mars bar costs sixteen shillings. ‘We’ll be late for tables.’  After we had got past Mong, a new panic set in. They ran. I flapped between them like a ragged Tibetan prayer-flag in the cold Himalayan wind. I yelled and prayed but there was no let-up, until Daisy Cooper intervened. She spoke to my mother about the daily torture. My brothers throttled back. My feet touched the ground.

I liked Daisy. She had a good natured dog, called Kaffir. He was stiff, as if assembled from odd bits of wood. He had no knees. He was covered in short curly hair, black, with streaks of grey, probably because of the stress of living across the road from Mong. Daisy looked after her sister, who slipped on seaweed at The Springboards as a child, and broke her hip. The hip never mended. She was fortunate in having Daisy. I wondered about Daisy, Daisy, give me your anserdoo. What could that mean? We wrote Ans at the end of a sum in our copybooks. We wrote it triumphantly, like magicians pulling rabbits from hats. I tried a little literary flourish. I wrote Anser. I should have written Anserdoo, in order to introduce a little levity into the proceedings. The teacher explained that there should be a w. All very strange. I had a lot to learn. Daisy once complimented me on my whistling. That was after McCarthy’s moved away, taking their evil mongrel with them. I can say it out loud now. ‘Yah, Mong.’ I don’t know if any young man ever asked Daisy to take a spin on a bicycle-made-for-two. I wouldn’t blame her if she refused. There is a convention that the lady sits at the back. The man makes all the decisions. He enjoys the bracing fresh air. He admires the scenery. She does as much work and gets a view of his least attractive feature.


You could of course, avoid Mong, by making a detour around by the mill and down through the fields. You had to weigh the pros and cons: the joy of walking to school in peace, against the anger of the teacher for missing tables. My mathematical skills suffered and have never recovered. I find darts a challenging game. I still can’t manage money. There was a boy in school who never liked to commit himself too deeply. ‘What’s seven sevens, Andy?’  ‘About fifty, Sir.’  Near enough  for all practical purposes.

On the way home, time was on our side. We could detour through the fields and the Ballast Pit. There was a man who used to pooch through the dump. He was about three score and ten years old, impossibly old and too slow to catch you if you shouted his name. This was just as well, as he carried a sack. ‘That man will put you in a sack,’ our mother warned us. ‘He’ll take you away.’  I suppose I understand her now. He was too old to run after us. He couldn’t climb up to our cave where the remains of an old wall cantilevered out from the gravel cliff. We dug under the foundations and hid there, safe from Mong and old men with sacks.  The gravel fell away.The wall snapped off and shattered into the pit below. I have some of the blocks in my garden now, not too many as I am too old ( about three score and baker’s dozen) to be carrying lumps of old walls around. I carried them up out of the pit, in a sack. (We prune the roses assiduously—and we have planted some Virginia Creeper.)

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Foxy could run, though. We watched him ploughing his field, now the GAA pitch. We waited until he was at the far end and shouted ‘Yah, Foxy!’ Quite witty, but a bad move. He abandoned horse and plough and covered the length of the field in two strides. No Gaelic player has ever equalled his speed over that ground. He came up the bank and over the wall like an avenging fury, before we could even think to run. He shook us until our teeth rattled. He demanded our names. He spoke to our parents. We never shouted at Foxy after that. I wonder if he was on steroids.

Harps, schools 008

There was little or no traffic on the Dublin Road, except for Bill Harrington’s father’s car. It was, more correctly, an automobile, a Studebaker, with a kind of rocket device on the grilel and a boot that stuck out at the back. Americans would say ‘ trunk.’  No other car stuck out at the back. I remember it as being a silvery, metallic, blue, utterly glamorous and exciting to see. Cars were supposed to be black and vertical at the back. Better than a bicycle-made-for-two anyway. Nowadays, when I go to call on my brother at the top of the Dublin Road, I take my life in my hands, crossing the road. On the plus side, I can walk up the road without fear of dogs and I don’t have to go to school.

Hunter gatherers, well suited to the job. The Hungry Generations.

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Mick Gargan lived in one of the white cottages on the North Strand, as shown in the old photograph on the Timeline. My sincerest thanks to the compiler of Skerries History in Photos for this treasure trove. The foreshore was, at the time, a crumbling, clayey bank. The bank was overgrown with wild spinach and weeds. There was a plant known as Elephant’s Ears, with a small, pink, rather miserable flower. Mick’s cottage was at right angles to the sea, with a small window in the gable end. No doubt it caught the midsummer evening sun, just like the modern houses that succeeded it. A modern architect would have persuaded him to open a picture window in the gable, but there was no triple glazing in Mick’s time and houses were built to shun the sea wind, arse to the breeze, like an intelligent donkey.

Like most men of his time Mick wore a suit and a long gaberdine. Encyclopaedia Britannica as late as the early seventies, remarked on the poor state of dress of the Dublin working man. Britannica knew everything, but they did not understand that a suit begins life as a Sunday ‘good suit’ and gradually works it way down to ‘working clothes’. What they observed was that Irish men had not adopted the notion of specialised work gear. A farmer would throw a sack over his shoulders in wet weather, but he still wore a suit, complete with waistcoat, (with the bottom button open, in deference to King Edward VII). There is a wonderful film of Skerries dinghy sailors of the Forties and Fifties, all wearing suits and smoking. A sail bag might be worn over the shoulders in heavy weather. No wonder everybody groaned with rheumatism and arthritis. I knew a man whose wife complained that, when he bought a new suit, he would go out and dig the garden or chop wood ‘to break it in.’ Now it’s all gortex, kevlar and sturdy denim, with knee pads for those who kneel and boots and helmets before you are allowed on site.

My interest in Mick Gargan extended to watching him when he went to gaff crabs at Red Island. He was a typical ‘oul fella’. We young lads wondered what he was doing, so we sneaked after him to find out. It was amazing. With a bit of bull-wire, bent into a hook, he pulled big red crabs out of crevices in the rocks near the low tide mark. He moved slowly and deliberately in his dark suit and long coat. He never said anything to us but now I imagine that he sensed ‘the hungry generations treading him down’ and usurpers moving in on his territory. We watched how he pulled back the weed and rooted in cracks and crevices with the gaff. Most importantly, we noted the locations of the holes. There are about a twenty good ones, that give up crabs in May, June and July. We went up to the Ballast Pit to get bull-wire from the old railway fences. Bull-wire, like everyone else, gives up under constant stress. Just keep bending it back and forth. Hammer a Hook at one end and a loop for a handle at the other and you are ready to put Mick Gargan out of business. It’s a jungle out there.

There is a knack to it. The red crab scrunches up when you invade his lair. You have to persuade him to grab the hook or get it inside his claw. It is a battle of wits. It might seem like an unequal contest, an educated, civilised, literate individual, from a species that has landed men on the Moon and split the atom, against an arthropod crustacean of limited intelligence, but more legs and claws. The crab can lie still, pretending to be a stone, but he always loses patience and makes a tell-tale sound as he tries to wedge himself further in. Let him go. Pull sharply, as he is adjusting his position and you have him. Did you see Ed Harris as the sniper in Enemy at the Gate. Patience is everything. It’s a primitive instinct to catch and eat your prey. The green crab comes out fighting. He’s an ugly, noisy customer. Don’t eat him or you will die an agonising death, or so the wisdom of ‘oul fellas’ tells us.

I could never resist wild food. The wild spinach all along the coast, is delicious, although the ubiquitous Skerries dogs might give you pause. Blackberries are everywhere. Crab apples in season, fall from the hedgerows. My brother mentioned a good crop up near the cemetery. If I am to be buried before him, I am sure that he will be, inconsolable, heart-broken, nay, devastated, but I am also sure that he will check out the crab apples if the season is right.

My old man loved wild mushrooms. After work in summer and autumn, he would become restless.
‘I believe I’ll take a ramble across the fields,’ he would say, by way of preamble. ‘Where are my galoshes?’ Galoshes were the only concession he made to rural life. He always wore his suit, with waistcoat, shirt and tie. He wore a hat, which he raised to any lady passing, including his daughters. (Please do not confuse galoshes with Gauloise, a brand of French cigarette, although they smell much the same.) At weekends he tried to get out before Jimmy Dillon, but I don’t think he ever succeeded. He always met Jimmy coming back with a well filled bag. ‘Good Morning, Corporal Dillon,’ he would greet him, letting Jimmy know that he was out-ranked. But Jimmy had once again, stolen a march. Once, when he was very old, he set off from our house to ramble along the fields as he had done for many years. It grew dark. I went to look for him. Perhaps he had missed his step and fallen over the cliff. I realised for the first time that my father had become an’ oul fella.’ No luck. I came back to the house to consult. He was there before me. There were no mushrooms, so he had thought it wiser to walk on along the treacherous cliff path to Loughshinny and take refreshment in the Yacht Bar before taking a bus home. The expedition was not a complete loss.

I have two crab gaffs. They could be fifty years old. My children enjoyed crab catching until they became sophisticated and began to frequent sea-food restaurants. My grandchildren still think it’s cool. They have demanded a map of the crab ‘courses’ before I retire completely. I have not kept up the standard of dress set by Mick Gargan, favouring jeans and old runners. I can no longer run and jump over the rocks. My six year old grandson said: ‘Grandad, your’re old, so I’ll hold on to you.’ What is he implying? Do I hear the suggestion of ‘oul fella’ in his kind offer? I know now why Mick Gargan moved so slowly and deliberately. As for those arthropods. They have, by my reckoning, thirty moving joints. They live in constant damp. They must suffer hell with arthritis. It is a kindness to put them out of their misery.

There was a young fellow who had an amazing knack for crab catching. He spurned the gaff in favour of using his hands. He festooned his jumper with his catch. The red crab will hang on through hell and high water. He always reminded me of General Ridgeway, of Korean War fame. The general wore hand-grenades on his shirt, probably as a gimmick, like Monty collected regimental cap badges and Patton wore pearl-handled Colt revolvers. I digress. This young fellow is now the C.E.O. of a major Irish company. Not long ago, after a very important meeting and business lunch, he went for a walk around Red Island, with a colleague, impeccably dressed, as befitted the serious nature of the occasion. The tide was low. When they reached The Captains, that atavistic hunter-gatherer instinct afflicted him. He took off his jacket. (A small informality.) ‘Here, hold this,’ he said, handing the jacket to his puzzled colleague. He nipped out over the rocks, his feet following instinctively, the familiar paths and toe-holds and came back with a clutch of red crabs. ‘Couldn’t resist it,’ he said. I don’t know what his good wife had to say about the state of his shoes and trousers, but I am glad to know that crab catching sartorial standards are being maintained in some quarters.

The little cottage is gone now. The foreshore has been reinforced by concrete. Mick Gargan is no more. May the light continue to shine on him for the knowledge he unwittingly imparted to three more generations.