Twelve Acres and Angels…..

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My father-in-law, Barney Duignan, was at one time, the youngest sergeant in the Garda Síochána, or The Civic Guards as they were called at the founding of the force. He was eighteen at the time, one of the first to join. This was at the time of the foundation of the state, when a bitter and brutal civil war was in progress. It is difficult to overstate the courage and dedication of those young men who went out, unarmed, to enforce the law in a land where assassination and reprisal had become the norm. Likewise it is impossible to adequately acknowledge the debt owed by our country to those who by moral force, gained acceptance for the authority of the democratically elected government. His first posting was Tallaght, a country village in County Dublin. He cycled out, with Paddy Glynn on the crossbar of his bike, to open the first police station in the village. Paddy Glynn was later, the sergeant in Skerries for many years. Barney went on to achieve the rank of Chief Superintendent, driven by an inflexible respect for the law, justice and public service.  There he is, standing beside a biplane in the Twelve Acres field in Skerries, some time in the 1920’s. It amused him to point  out that he had flown from the field in which our house now stands. He survived the hazards of early aviation and equally, he survived the hazards of smoking. Smoking beside high-octane aviation fuel can seriously damage your health. I have spotted him in old photographs of motor cycle races, marshalling the crowds that thronged onto Strand Street. The smell of the high-octane petrol still brings me back to the excitement of the Skerries 100.  I have seen the letter of commendation he received from the RNLI. Although he had the countryman’s dread of the sea, he volunteered one night to make up the numbers in the lifeboat. ‘It was my duty.’ Simple as that.

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I heard John B. Keane talking about the spiritual importance of a field. A field is the product of effort and the accumulation of memories and associations. What a great field it was. Despite the name, I understand that it contained twenty five Irish acres. Irish acres were introduced during the time of the confiscations to take more land while making the theft sound less excessive. I don’t know how this worked out at twelve. I saw cricket matches there and the bivouacs of the LDF. There was a gymkhana in The Twelve Acres and a horse show. I can recall how the earth trembled under the hooves of the enormous draught horses. Their manes were plaited with ribbons. Their tails were plaited in like manner.Their necks arched as gracefully as the necks of the Parthenon horses. Their harness shone with burnished brass. Their flanks were combed and gleaming and they wore their white-tufted fetlocks with the panache of a regiment of prancing Zulu warriors. You could easily see how a line of heavy cavalry would strike terror into an opposing army. The Pony Daly had a plough-horse in the show. We wanted him to win as he was a friend of our parents. I can’t remember the result but the hooves still pound in my memory. The nomads of the various travelling circuses set up their tents here. The excitement was almost too much for small children. From our back window, you could see the poles of the big top rising into the sky and the striped tent materialising, as if by magic. There was magic. They were real circuses, with elephants and lions. They had monkeys and horses and trapeze artists defying gravity. They had clowns. I still dread clowns. The clowns had a collapsing motor car that backfired. Is there anything as funny as a backfiring car? I had a few cars like that. Not a bit funny.

We crossed this field with our father, on autumn mornings, on our way to the mushroom fields along the cliffs. We went in by the stile at the Red Shed. That was a barn, always filled with hay and straw. It would have made a great hangar. He showed us where the soldiers had cut rifle slots in the corrugated iron in 1916. The farmer had claimed compensation from the War Office, for damage to his barn. He wanted a new barn. Due to the ‘exigencies of the war effort’ they could not provide him with a barn but they sent him the cost of repair. Lloyd George was in government. What would you expect?  The barn was patched with pieces of iron, bolted into place like giant pot-menders. They rusted. The barn rusted. Red lead could not halt the decline. The rectangle of the barn became a trapezium. It inclined. It sagged and eventually disintegrated, around the time that the British Empire did likewise. All that red on the world map in school was really rust.

At the extreme S.E. corner of the field stood Cheeser Barrett’s forge. He wore a ‘cheese-cutter’ cap, still popular with sailing folk, despite the ubiquitous baseball cap. Cheeser saw his trade decline, with the advent of tractors and motor transport. Horses became a rarity. As a man of action and a serious drinking man, he occasionally took matters into his own hands. I saw him standing in the middle of the road, swinging at the passing traffic with an iron bar. Perhaps he resented the petrol fumes.  He made a big impact on me, as a symbol of the passing of an old way of life, just as he no doubt made an impact on the passing motorists. We all handle change in our different ways.

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We bought a house at the extreme N .E.corner of the new development. We saw the field turn into a World War I landscape as new roads were laid and the slope was graded. Poppies and thistles grew everywhere. Margaret describes how she saw me coming home from the train, carrying a child on my shoulders, through a blizzard of thistledown. The thistledown drifted on the breeze. There are a few descendants still lurking in our garden. The children called them angels. The angels drifted in through open windows and sailed around the house. The children blew them aloft and laughed as the little parachutes drifted languidly about the room. The dandelion clocks told the time on long summer days as we set our house and gardens in order. There are still some dandelions too but …live and let live. The Twelve Acres has been good to us.

Barney delighted in his grandchildren and they in him. I never imagined him as an angel but I like to think that maybe occasionally, he circles above the Twelve Acres field to keep an eye on things, as any vigilant Guard would.

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Thatcherism, Shrdlu and the Seat of Power.

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Many years ago, in Skerries News, I was referred to as ‘a well-known local thatched cottage.’ How my children cackled.  Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m local all right but the resemblance ends at that. Thatch implies a generous and cosy covering overhead. No chance. I put this down to the machinations of Mr. Shrdlu. Somebody explained to me that Mr. Shrdlu was a gremlin who lurked in a linotype machine, between matrices and boiling metal, coming out in the dead of night to insert misprints and solecisms into the work of hard working journalists. More cynical readers suggested that the journalists had been working hard in the bar next door. A vile calumny on a dedicated profession. The first letters on the linotype machine spell ETAOIN SHRDLU. He sounds like an ancient Celtic warrior, of the spear, shield and mini-skirt variety.  They always had great heads of hair and bulging muscles. Think of Conan the Barbarian. For a Barbarian though, Conan was strangely beardless. Never mind.  Shrdlu is a relative of Qwerty. I found that he gave his name to a very primitive (1968!) computer programming language and an early example of artificial intelligence. He could distinguish between blocks of different shapes. So can you.

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(Irish Times)

I heard an old thatcher, Charlie Fanning, describing his work. He worked with straw, not reed. The best straw for thatching was hand cut, before combines arrived on the scene, to bunch up and crack the straw. He explained how he made a ‘wangle’ of straw, a twist that he worked into the roof and secured with a sharpened loop of sally rod, a scolb in Irish. ‘The day of the wind is not the day for scolbs.’ Sound common sense, but do we heed it? ‘Wangle’ also describes the technique, the twist and thrust of the wrist, the manipulation of the straw. It is a metaphor too, a way of getting what you want. It is a function of real, not artificial, intelligence, to learn how to wangle, to negotiate, to persist and adapt, in order to achieve your desired result.

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These little warriors, Luke and Emily, were intrigued by the thatch but a bit wary of the darkness inside. It was draughty in the Iron Age.  A mini-skirt would be no protection from the wind whistling under the thatch. Conan the Rheumatic.  Charlie, the thatcher, said that you could get fifty years from a reed roof, while a good straw one would survive maybe twenty. He thatched most of the cottages in Skerries in times gone by. We still have some.

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Henry Power lived in the inner cottage, the one with the green door. He had a newsagent-grocer -barber shop, which employed several brothers. There were always jokes and banter in Powers. “Will the papers be long, Seán?” (The papers arrived on the bus.) “Ah, about that length, Alec.”  The  father? brother? was a barber. It’s a long time ago. My brothers scared me with the news that the barber had got an electric hair-clipper. ‘It sounds like an aeroplane landing on your head.’   It did too but I survived. There were no nicks.  A haircut cost something like ninepence or a shilling.  Even at that rate, I have saved several hundred pounds over the last four decades—-because I’m worth it. The barber put a plank across the arms of the chair for the smaller customers. I felt like a king up there, a giant, looking down from my throne, on my brothers as they thumbed through Readers’ Digest and Wide World Magazine. That was a magazine about adventures in far-flung parts of the Empire, where people lived in grass huts and chaps went out to shoot tigers. Bracing stuff.

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Frank Muir on the radio, made us smile in those pre-television days. He could weave a fanciful story to tickle even the most staid sense of humour. No computer can do that. Artificial intelligence doesn’t stretch to a good joke.  Like Mr. Spock, it doesn’t tolerate the absurd. A computer might relay a joke but it doesn’t get it. Freud analysed jokes and killed them stone dead.  Muir exploited his lisp for all it was worth and enjoyed the occasional Spoonerism…….  The king of a little island in the Pacific, part of that far-flung Empire, came to London for the Coronation in 1953. Hilary and Tenzing had just presented Everest to Her new Majesty as a coronation gift. (See Wide World Magazine.) The king became fascinated by the throne of Edward I, on which the new monarch sat. It is seven centuries old. The gilt has become a little time-worn. The good English oak is covered in nicks. The Stone of Scone lay on a bar underneath the throne. That was nicked by Edward I from the Scots who had previously nicked it from Ireland. The Scots have nicked it back.  Anyway, went on Muir, the king commissioned an exact replica of the throne and had it shipped back to his island and installed in his counsel house. His subjects were suitably impressed by his Seat of Power, but it took up too much room. When he was not sitting in counsel with his Elders, he had them hoist the throne into the rafters on ropes fashioned from palm fibres. (See Wide World Magazine.) You can probably guess what happened. The roof collapsed under the weight of the throne and the exact replica of the Stone of Scone, with disastrous results.  “The mowal of this stowy,” concluded Muir , “is that people who live in gwass houses, shouldn’t stow thwones.”

Charlie was thatching a cottage in Rush, combing and tapping, trimming the generous eaves, so that a passer-by might shelter from the rain. He strewed the pavement with shreds of golden straw. The sunlight gleamed on the new roof. Ah! the good old days.  An old man pushing a broom stopped to chat. He leaned on his broom. He regarded the work. “Not many thatchers left nowadays,” he remarked. “No,” agreed Charlie. Snip Snip. “Nearly all gone now,” continued the old man in a quavering voice.  “That’s right.” Snip Snip.  “And the sooner you’re effin’ well gone out of it, the better. Less effin work for me to do.”

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Charlie is gone now. So is the boy with the bike, Bernie Healy, who lived into his nineties, a man who enjoyed a story. I think of Charlie every time I walk down Convent Lane. His cottage eaves brush my hairs (plural). I must have become a giant.

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