The Captains. After Midsummer’s Day. John the Baptist

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The artist, Fred McElwee, must have swum here, like thousands of others.He captured the pull and the surge of water at mid tide. No doubt he experienced it at extreme low tide, when you can stand comfortably on the bottom and at high tide when the waves wash over the platform and the current flows through like a river. Sometimes it is enough just to walk down to The Captains and gaze into the water at flickering herring fry, heralds of warm weather and mackerel. They flee in perpetual fear from the terrible jaws of the  mackerel. Their eyes are round and staring, searching, looking this way and that for safety. There is none. I rescued a stranded fry and held it in the water. I resuscitated it by gently squeezing it until a bubble of air emerged from its mouth. Now it could submerge. It wriggled away into the depths. Some day, when I am shipwrecked and clinging to a spar in the swirling waves, a giant herring will find me and say: ‘I remember you. Be not afraid’.   It worked for Androcles and to some extent, for Jonah, so why not for me.

Just be a little afraid in The Captains. The notice used to say: ‘Beware of Rocks and Bootlace Weed.’ It played to our fear of The Deep and the creatures that may lurk there. Bootlace weed won’t hold you if you swim gently through it. It slides off your body like a caress. Very little grows there anyway. Similarly with the big, leathery laminaria. It forms waving, sunlit forests where small fish hover and jellyfish occasionally drift speculatively, seeking whom they may afflict. The notice now says :’Competent Swimmers Only’. No eejits. Beware of diving onto rocks. On your own head be it. Beware of diving onto swimmers too. A friend landed on my head once. It was a pain in the neck. Still is, in damp weather. Right now we are enjoying a heatwave. I must break off here (8 30) and go for my early morning swim in The Captains. The tide is full. I should have it more or less to myself. There will be no hurtling young lads to fall on my head. Nobody will blow a whistle and dragoon me into a sea race.

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(11 30) Yes. It was better than I had hoped for. A week ago the water was mind-numbingly cold. The swim made me sad and resentful. Today was perfect; warm, clear water; sunlight glittering on sea, rocks and islands, as far as Lambay;  a haze over the Mournes; a few bright  cumulus, begging to be painted. Go for it, Fred. Moreover, it was all mine. Maybe I am becoming a curmudgeon.   Although melancholy poets write about the Earth tilting like a compass in a binnacle, as it leans away from the Sun and goofy Druids try to prevent it, the summer generally picks up after Midsummer’s Day. There are no thoughts of careering pell-mell into winter. In mediaeval times, young maidens in search of a life partner, danced in the churchyards, among the tombstones, on Saint John’s Eve, June the 23rd. That would be regarded as ‘anti-social activity’ nowadays. That’s John the Baptist, a man not normally associated with levity. In fact a dance cost him his head, poor fellow.

Stevenson said that a young fellow should be a great deal idle in his youth. I did my best. The Captains is a place of fun and sociability for succeeding generations. We argued and laughed and listened to our elders. We learned to dive and swim and practise water-safety. I have my badge from 1955. I am qualified to rescue others besides herring fry. I learned the Halger-Nielson method of resuscitation, where air was pumped back into the lungs by raising and lowering the elbows. Utterly useless for herring fry. There is a manoeuvre whereby you place your foot on the victim’s shoulder and push him/her down into the water while turning him/her around  in order to execute the ‘cross-chest-carry.’ There were no /hers in my class. Drat!  It was the Fifties, after all.  My partner was stout and heavy.(Most kids were skinny). His legs were too short to reach my shoulder. He kicked me severely in the face, (nothing personal) until the instructor gave up on him. He settled for a long cross-chest carry, before awarding the badges.  Fortunately neither of us has been called upon in the intervening years to use our skills.

The late and lugubrious Les Dawson complained about his expensive new shoes. He bought them a size too small. ‘The only pleasure I got out of them was taking them off.’  This very fine ladies’ changing shelter, built in 1956, after desegregation, was a bit like the shoes. It was built of fine Howth Stone, a striking piece of Modernism (?) It immediately became a public latrine. Outside, it was a sun-trap, a windbreak, a vantage point and a forum but you couldn’t go inside because of the stench. Moreover, it was too cold and draughty to serve as a changing room. You could climb onto the roof and sunbathe, if you weren’t afraid of heights. You could carve your initials in the soft stone but you couldn’t shelter in it. It was demolished after about fifty years when it became the focus of ‘anti-social activity’. Maybe the activity was a bit too social. There may have been some dancing. I hope nobody lost his/her head.

At night seaweed stranded by the tide, can glow with phosphorescence. It seems to crackle with other-worldly light. Away from the lights of the town, the stars shine down with startling brightness. It is not advisable however, to swim there in the dark, no matter how romantic it might seem. I have become a curmudgeon. A stranger asked my friend, who was treading water: ‘Eh mister, can you stand there?’  ‘Yes,’ said he,’ but you can’t breathe.’ Bear that in mind.

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There are days when swimming is simply out of the question, (as were most things in the Fifties). The Captains is in there somewhere. Even competent swimmers would be foolish to attempt it. Nevertheless, it always repays a visit, in memories and invigorating fresh air. I wonder if Fred ever painted what he saw under the water.

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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.