The Moving Finger Writes………Vere Foster

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A man from Collon came to my door. He carried a clip board and a high-altitude-writing-stick. A clip board conveys authority. The high-altitude-writing-stick was invented by Lazlo Biro for use in aeroplanes. It seems that fountain pens become high-altitude-ink-bombs in unpressurised cockpits, as if fighter pilots hadn’t enough to contend with. He was conducting a survey for a joinery firm. I’m not a great joiner, in any sense of the word, so we fell to talking about lighthouses, as you do. There is a lighthouse in his part of the world, many miles from the sea. It was built as a folly by a member of the landed gentry with more money than sense. He could have invested his wealth in something more productive than lighthouses, as many of his class did, like say, opulent houses, majestic gardens, drink, gambling, mistresses and most of all, horses. It is a very fine lighthouse all the same.

A re-branded Eircom van went past. Look at that handwriting. That’s not an r. Write it out correctly, fifty times. Don’t get me started.

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He spoke enthusiastically about another near neighbour, Vere Foster, a great Irishman, whose name has been almost forgotten amid the crowd of political and revolutionary figures of his time. He used his inherited wealth to improve the lot of his poorer fellow Irishmen and women, funding and supervising the needs of emigrants to America in the years following the Great Famine. He travelled frequently on the Famine ships and campaigned tirelessly for better conditions on board and in employment in the destination countries. He entreated those he helped always to value freedom and fairness to others, regardless of gender, race or creed.  His influence on education was immense. He funded more than two thousand rural schools, stipulating that every school should have a roof and a wooden floor, a major advance on the hedge schools of the time. To Foster, education was the only way out of poverty. You probably learned to write ‘joined writing’ from the Vere Foster system of headline copies. So did your great grandparents. We copied proverbs and maxims on pages lined in red and blue: Procrastination is the thief of time. I didn’t know what it meant at the time, but I have proven the veracity of the statement many times over the years. My handwriting is still the writing I learned to do, tongue moving in synchronicity to the J or Waverley nib, in Mr. Doyle’s class. There were occasional blobs, when I blotted my copybook, a heinous crime. There were bursts of flak when the nib snagged in the coarse post-war paper.  I took care to dot my s, cross my t s and mind my p s and q s. It was much more satisfactory than writing on slate with screechy chalk’ as the poor ‘sucks’ in the junior classes had to do. Fountain pens were not allowed. Biros, when they arrived on the scene, were anathema. The ball-point wanders about, giving no shape to the letters. Ball-points were and are, bad for handwriting. Moreover, they were quite capable of bursting at ground level. We scratched away like the ancient scribes, with not quite the same success, but with a sense of achievement.  I have enjoyed the process ever since.

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Vere Foster was like a lighthouse in a very dark time in Ireland’s history. He never went to war or blew anyone, or anything, up. His name is not pre-eminent among the ranks of Irish patriots. One hundred and fifteen years after his death, in a mean lodging house in Belfast, he is almost forgotten. Spare a thought for him, the next time you take pen in hand and no slovenly writing, if you please.

As for lighthouses, I prefer mine with water.

Cod and Ships. Apples and Onions.

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Don’t you love the geometry of old sailing vessels? This is Mavis winning Skerries regatta in 1928, a little before my time. Designed and built by the legendary John Kearney of Ringsend, it is heartwarming to know that she is being restored in Camden, Maine at present, with a re-launch date of July 2015. The Kearneys of Ringsend, made a massive contribution to boat building in Skerries over the years.  Everyone without exception, responds to sailing vessels, the adventurer, the yachtsman, the romantic dreamer, the poet, the painter,the wood-worker, the storyteller. There is an elegance to a sailing ship that belies the hard work and danger involved in harnessing the wind. She arrives mysteriously, as a cloud appearing over the horizon and departs like a stately lady adjusting her train, tilting her hat and shaking out her parasol.

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In the early 19th century there were over one hundred sailing vessels fishing and trading out of Skerries. Despite the changes brought about by two centuries, the harbour is still recognisable. The power behind all this activity lay the sail-maker’s skill. The village provided employment through several sail lofts, a bark yard and a rope-walk. Without these, commerce would have been in the Doldrums, to borrow a phrase. Red Island, as is well known, took its name from the red sail-cloth drying on the grass. The tan-bark was boiled in a great cauldron and the canvas was soaked, strengthened and given its characteristic colour.

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As a child I thought that the Bark Yard was full of dogs. I gave it a wide berth, to borrow another phrase. It became a coal yard. It is now an impregnable fortress with an enormous oil tank inside. Only the windows show where the covered building stood, where sails were cut and sewn and men gossipped and argued about boats and fishing and always, the laws of the sea. “If me mother was on the port tack and wouldn’t give way, I’d run her up on the Dorn of Shennick.” The corner-stones of dressed limestone bear witness still to what an imposing place it was. Oil is the power now. It drives commerce and world politics. It shimmers on the waters of the harbour. It stinks. It never suggests an elegant lady in a flowing dress, with a white parasol over her shoulder.

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(Elizabeth Howard, Photo courtesy of Bill Dunne)

In the final year of the Great Famine, Charles McManus, of Lower Quay, Street, Skerries, like many thousands of other Irish people, took his family to Boston. He took also his skill as a sail-maker, learnt and perfected in The Bark Yard. He prospered in that great seaport. The McManus name, through several generations, became synonymous with sail making and the design of  schooners for the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. The seemingly inexhaustible supply of cod from those foggy and unpredictable waters, went to feed the expanding population of a newly industrial America. By general consent, the McManus schooners were by far the safest in the fishing grounds. It is tempting to think that the DNA of the Skerries boats evolved, through Charles McManus and his descendants, into the sleek racing yachts and schooners of New England. A poet would get away with such an idea. A storyteller would think it and maybe, weave some strands together.

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In 1836 Richard Henry Dana sailed from Boston as an ordinary seaman, for ‘two years before the mast.’  His journey took him around The Horn to trade for hides in Mexican California. He recounts how he was sent ashore to a little island called Alcatraz to cut wood for the cook’s fire. He also tells how his ship, the brig, Pilgrim, on the return journey, met an outgoing ship carrying fruit and vegetables. They traded hides for onions, the first fresh vegetables they had eaten in months. Everywhere on the ship, below and aloft, the men munched onions. They gloried in onions. They discussed and rhapsodized about, onions. Like Darwin, the voyage gave him time to think. He espoused education and humanitarian causes. He opposed slavery. He wrote a great book. Our father read it to us from a battered and much handled copy, with the stitching hanging out. We wondered at the notion of tanned hides flying from the cliffs down to the beach like enormous bats. We shivered at the notion of flogging. We thrilled at the descriptions of icebergs and the storms around Cape Horn. But always I thought irreverently, about the onions. The Doldrums presented no problem to Pilgrim.

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(Photo courtesy of Fergus Ryan)

My father’s Aunt Nellie rented a house beside the Bark Yard. There was an apple tree in the garden…Beauty of Bath. She sent The Pony Daly to deliver a sack of apples to us. This was Heaven. At any time of the day or night you could go and get an apple and munch away, until inevitably, tragically the sack was depleted. My brothers, the swabs, had taken the last ones. String them from the yard-arms, keel haul them, trice them aloft, the scurvy dogs. I recognised the situation when Jim Hawkins hid in the apple barrel and overheard Long John, Israel Hands and other malcontents plotting mutiny on Hispaniola. A story to feed the imagination. Ben Gunne as you recall, longed for cheese. I imagine that Aunt Nellie could have taken those mutineers in hand. She made great apple tarts, with cloves from Zanzibar, where Arab dhows with lateen sails, cleave the waters of the Indian Ocean and the ghost of Vasco da Gama still haunts the shores of Africa. Diolinda of Wexford, my grandfather’s schooner, saw out her last years in those waters. Stories all driven by sail.

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(Lower Quay Street is now the narrow end of Strand Street. Charles McManus lived in the first cottage on The Crack, from where Joe and Rory Kelly set out to sail the oceans of the world.)

Heads you win; tails I lose.

See the robbers passing by,

Passing by, passing by.

See the robbers passing by,

My fair lady.

(To the tune of London Bridge is falling down…) 

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I made this drawing from Claes Visscher’s Panorama of London, published in Amsterdam in 1616, the year of Shakespeare’s death.  Old London Bridge was considered the most salubrious place to live, having endless supplies of relatively clean water and the perfect system for the disposal of waste. The road to Kent and the south, passed under an arch decorated with the heads of executed traitors, enemies of the Crown and thereby, of the people. You had to be ‘somebody’ to get your head over Traitors’ Gate.  You were put there as an example to others and as a warning not to do it again, which, of course, worked. Punishment was swift and hideous.  Tradition has it that Saint Thomas More’s head remained incorrupt for many months, probably giving the wrong message about King Henry and his many reforms. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since those days and a great many heads have rolled, on various pretexts. The practice of exhibiting severed heads has died out in what we are pleased to call ‘civilized countries.’  The childrens’ rhyme, however, persists, although the accompanying game has given place to video games and electronic entertainment.  The game, as I recall it, involved linking of arms and attempts to pass through a gate, in time to the chant. It ended with

Chop, chop, chop.

The Irish writer, Father Peadar O Leary, recalled seeing, in more recent times, three black balls on spikes over the police barracks in Macroom. They were the heads of three 1848 revolutionaries. He never forgot the sight. It was the time of the Great Famine, when one horror was piled on another, leaving an indelible mark on our collective memory.  As a country, we have come a long way since then. We enjoy a standard of living unimaginable to people who live in countries ravaged and plundered by their own rulers or devastated by natural disasters. We live in a democracy, however imperfect; a dreadful system, as Churchill pointed out, but better than all the others. There is a fairly general acceptance of decency and fair play and the concept of sharing. We are far from perfect, but the aspiration underpins our society. It is a less strident form of patriotism. It is the patriotism of those who consider the welfare of others. These patriots don’t wave flags or brandish weapons to demonstrate their love of their fellow human beings. They won’t get their heads on coins or stamps or banknotes. They get on with things.

It is difficult to feel any sympathy for a Russian oligarch, confined to an arctic gulag. These are the people who rifled the resources of their country after the collapse of Communism. They spend their obscene wealth on football clubs and what they call yachts, vast ocean-going liners that dwarf the harbours of the warmer countries to the south. It is equally difficult to feel any great warmth or enthusiasm for Putin. They were the Nomenklatura, the elite of the old system. From time to time, we have had our own shabby, cut-price version of the Nomenklatura, the names, the ‘sound men’.

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I was approaching the East Link Bridge, with a car-load of children. I was fumbling for change. I should have planned ahead. Suddenly I was surrounded by the banshee wail of sirens and the thrummm of police motorbikes.  Nabbed, with only one hand on the wheel. Not quite. The policemen gestured the traffic into the side of the road.  A stream of Mercedes state cars flashed past, filled with important people. There was a national emergency. The government was taking to a nuclear bunker, to direct the affairs of the country through a time of crisis. I sat in awe of my betters, until the blue lights dwindled into the distance and the traffic began to move again. I told the children that they had been privileged to see the awesome power and majesty of government in action, at close quarters. They would recount this moment to their grandchildren. They might sit in the chimney corners of pubs in their old age and mooch free pints, in return for retelling the story to open-mouthed yokels.

Not entirely true. It was 1990 and Packie Bonner was about to win The World Cup for Ireland, in Italia . It became suddenly necessary for every patriotic Irishman and woman to rally to the flag and hasten to Genoa.  The cabinet ministers, fortunately, had state cars  and the forces of law and order to whisk them to the government jet at the airport. Had this not been possible, we would have been disgraced before the entire world and maybe, would not have won the World Cup, at all, at all. I remember the victory parade.

We have been going through difficult times. A great deal has been asked of the Irish people. It has borne down hard on many families.  Yet we have not rioted, burning buildings and cars or putting heads on pikes. A little light is being  shed on the incompetence and grubby peculation of some those chosen to run the country and its institutions. We have seen minor treasons exposed.  A few heads have metaphorically rolled. An apology would not be out of place. The Japanese do apology quite well. There is Hara Kiri. A bit flashy, requiring an expensive sword and also a bit messy.  There is the Yakuza chopping off of one’s own finger. As many of our Nomenklatura have been giving two fingers to the public for many years, one or two more wouldn’t be overdoing it. While waiting in traffic recently for the East Link Bridge to rise and fall again, dark, end of year thoughts assailed me. Put the heads under the bridge. Just show them when a boat passes through.  No. No. That would not be civilized, would it?

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Ali Baba and the Forty thieves

Went to school with dirty knees

But all that they could see,see, see,

Was the bottom of the deep, blue, sea, sea, sea. 

To Infinity and Beyond. The Great Northern Railway. Eggs scrambled and otherwise.

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The railway came to Skerries about 160 years ago, in the middle of The Great Famine.It seems like an unlikely time to speculate on new-fangled machines and a network of tracks all over the country. Like the famine, the railways radically changed this country. The engineers created new landscapes, levelling or cutting through hills and piling embankments across swamps and valleys. Everything was subservient to gradient. Elegant viaducts stride across rivers and estuaries. For the first time speed greater than that of a galloping horse became possible. The fascination of railways still survives.

It is ironic to think that what fascinates us most, is often that which is forbidden. The Duke of Wellington, then Prime Minister, saw at close quarters, his political rival, Huskisson, killed by Stevenson’s Rocket. It instilled in him a horror of trains. He instructed that railways and trains should be hedged about by fences and notices warning of dire punishments for any who trespass on the tracks. Those notices are still there, elegant cast iron warnings with raised print. A century and a half of paint made many illegible, but they fulfill the letter of the law. In the cast iron awning at the station you will still see the letters GNR intertwining amid the struts and braces. The railway age was the time when cast iron sprouted and blossomed into Corinthian pillars and fruit-laden boughs. Some of that old decency survives amid the electronics and loud-speakers.
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Mr. Sreenan was once the station master. He was a small good-natured man with a high-pitched voice. I remember him mostly in his retirement. He lived near us. His wife kept hens. I was often sent to buy eggs, a task which I enjoyed. Their front door was exactly the same as ours, but on a smaller scale. It was on the level, with no visible doorstep. I could reach the knocker. I was a giant. I pounded on the knocker and said in a deep, rumbling giant’s voice: ‘Mammy wants to know if you can oblige with a dozen eggs.’ That was in the days when people ‘obliged with a song’ or ‘obliged with the time’. Actually I didn’t pound. I minded my manners. My voice squeaked, but it felt great to be a giant, if only for a few minutes. Mr. Sreenan gave me his bike when he got too old to ride it. It was the most comfortable bike in the world, with a step on the back axle. I had it for a week. My brother pranged it, doing speedway around Red Island. He has promised to fix it for me.

Mr. Canning’s time was the golden age of the station. His sons were much the same age as we were. This gave us the entree to the platforms and even the signal box, with its battery of levers and cables. I marvelled at how the signal men knew which lever to pull, or push. They had lanterns which they lit in the evening before plodding off to the distance signals. They carried awesome responsibility and power. Very occasionally they remembered Wellington’s warnings and chased us off the premises. At the northern siding lay The Ballast Pit, where locomotives scraped out their furnaces and dumped the cinder. There was an ever-smouldering fire at the Ballast Pit, where people came to pick coke in winter time. I recall boys coming late to school with the soot and ashes on their hands and the shame-faced excuse: ‘Pickin’ coke, Sir.’ We would call it sustainable recycling nowadays.

The railway livery was mediaeval in its splendour. The buses were navy and fawn, with a British Leyland tiger leaping dramatically out of the bonnet. The GNR coat of arms was a shield with ships and castles, the red hand of Ulster, a sword and strangest of all, a genial skeleton sitting on a sack of coal. I was fascinated by his smile. I thought he had a great job, riding around on trains and buses all the time.

Just as the railway imposed its will on the landscape, creating swamps and embankments, it imposed itself on human behaviour. People became its minions. The timetable ruled their lives. If one commuter broke into a trot, everybody followed suit. Scientists study flocks of birds to find out about this herd /flock behaviour. It’s quite simple. If you don’t run you won’t get a seat. You won’t be able to read your paper or meet your usual travelling companions. This, of course, does not apply to starlings. Nowadays people travel with plugs in their ears. They don’t look out at the sunrise over Rogerstown or Howth or the splendour of the harvest fields. They fiddle with their phones or sit immobile, with that thousand-yard-stare of the terminally catatonic. In this way, they can avoid seeing the elderly or pregnant and not feel obliged to oblige with the offer of a seat.
The alternative is to commute by car and spend the time clenching the steering wheel and swearing. Did you see Michael Douglas on the freeway in Falling Down? His subsequent behaviour was a bit over the top, but he had a point.

Mr. Canning had a regrettable habit of making sure that the train departed on time. In the interests of safety, he closed the platform gate. This sometimes infuriated my father, who usually timed his sprint to perfection. There were heated exchanges.
‘Just because you have a bit of scrambled egg on your cap…’ At first I thought he was alluding to a hasty breakfast or a small commercial transaction, but it was a charge that came out of the pit of antiquity, the resentment of senior officers and ‘dogs obeyed in office.’ The next train was in an hour’s time, time enough to come back home and fume over another cup of tea. We stepped warily and got ready for school. Sadly, Mr Canning was killed by a motor car, outside our house. My father was very upset. ‘Decent bloody fellow.’

The GNR passed away. The great steam locomotives were supplanted. You can no longer stick your head over the parapet of a railway bridge and get a face full of smoke. The parapets have all been raised in the interests of safety. Diesel trains in CIE green, took over. No longer in the dark can you trace the passage of a train by the puffing of smoke and the hiss of steam. If there is a tear in your eye when remembering those bygone days, at least it is not from grains of soot wafted in through an open window.

Brother Malachy explained how parallel lines can do amazing things in geometry. They never meet. Except,of course, in infinity. He smiled at our puzzlement at this vast concept. When there was no steam locomotive available, there was occasionally an electric rail car. There was a seat beside the driver, although he lived in an enclosed cabin with levers and buttons and the fascinating ‘dead man’s handle’. Perhaps that was the skeleton’s job. From this much contested seat you had the same view as the driver. Brother Malachy was mistaken. Parallel lines meet beyond the golf course, just before you get to Lusk. Somewhere beyond that again, the old GNR trains still rumble onwards into infinity.

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