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.

Countdown to War, July 29th 1914-2014

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Yesterday, a hundred years ago, the Great War began. Austria and Serbia began the process that dragged the world into war. The metaphor of the Matterhorn tragedy of 1865 has often been used to express what happened. Four climbers were plucked off the mountain when a rope connecting them to three others, broke. They were on their way down. It is often more difficult to get out of a situation than to get into it. The weight of the uppermost climber pulled the second one loose. Their combined weight peeled the third and then the fourth from the face of the crag. The ties that bound them together, were their undoing. The watchers below were helpless to do anything.  The tragedy became the subject of paintings and engravings. After all, the leader of the expedition was Edward Whymper, an artist in love with the Alps.

Professional historians say that the situation was much more complex than this metaphor. Of course it was, but Austria pulled in Germany while Serbia plucked the Russian Empire to its destruction, then France, Belgium, the British Empire and any innocent bystanders who happened to be watching. Portugal was wary of Germany in Africa, so they sent troops to Belgium. The French brought Indo-Chinese  and Senegalese to Europe. Australians and Dubliners went to Turkey. Keep an eye on the Japanese, not that they could pose any serious threat to The Great Powers. The Arabs are getting restless. A glorious opportunity for world strategists to display their skills. Spread out those maps. Send in the cavalry. Send an expedition to Mesopotamia. That should keep those blighters quiet for a century or two.  King Hammurabi of Mesopotamia, in Biblical times, made laws for the protection of widows and orphans. No need to worry about them. It will all be over by Christmas.

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It’s a load of shit. Bird shit in fact. The first naval battle was off the South American coast, where Britain and Germany fought to secure the supplies of bird guano from Chile, to make high explosive, to fill the millions and millions of shells needed to dismember millions and millions of people and destroy the drainage of the rivers of Flanders. The shells are things of beauty, works of art. My father defused one of those small shells and brought it back from the war as a souvenir. He saw lads doing the same thing on ammunition dumps and blowing themselves up in the process. There is an art to removing the detonator and the high explosive. Handle with extreme care. It is safe now. In his old age he gave it to me. Their manufacture ensured full employment and liberated women to take paid labour. What could be wrong with that? Famine, Plague, War and Death kicked their horses into a canter. Welcome to the Apocalypse. The troops marched to the front. The khaki-clad British, sensibly, took taxis. The brightly coloured French despised camouflage. They relied on élan. The Russians promptly got lost.  The Kaiser turned to his chemists to fabricate guano. While you’re at it, make me some poison gas.

There were other allegorical figures linked together on that slippery slide into catastrophe: Pride, Covetousness, Lust, Anger, Gluttony, Envy and Sloth. They all brought their talents to the conflict. You could mention also, Irony, Stupidity, astonishing Charity, Mercy, Generosity, Patriotism and Honour, Humour, Endurance and heart-breaking Courage. Poets idealised the shedding of blood. Artists tried to depict the grim reality. Musicians lifted the spirits. In La Grande Illusion a disillusioned soldier remarks that there would be no wars if there were no brass bands. We all love a brass band.…and we won’t be back till it’s over over there…That film was made by Renoir, son of Renoir the artist. There are many things to love about old Renoir. I particularly admire his remarks about the necessity of keeping the house safe for children: removing razor blades and anything that might injure them, poisonous fluids and chemicals etc.

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However, it may be necessary in a war to kill children, along with their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, grandparents and neighbours, if strategy demands it. This is of course, regrettable and should be avoided if possible, by extensive leafleting in advance, as is done in the present conflict in Gaza. The fact that they have nowhere to run to is a sad irony of the situation. That gun is a thing of sinister beauty, a work of art and precision. It is sited at Sanctuary Wood. Who sought sanctuary there? Where do the children of Gaza seek sanctuary? In a playground? In a school? In a hospital? Not right now. Don’t you know there’s a war on? God fights on the side of the big battalions, with the big guns.

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My brother, who knows a bit about museums, accompanied me to Flanders. He took issue with the way artefacts (objects made by art?) were displayed at the Ulster Tower museum. ‘These items should be displayed in atmosphere controlled environments’ he pointed out. ‘They will deteriorate over time.’  ‘Don’t worry,’ replied the official.’We can always go outside and dig up some more.’  That is the truth.

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Plenty more where George Nugent came from. His name is attached to a cross.

When I was a child, my mother took me to the National Museum. I saw wonderful things. One thing that puzzled me was the inscription on the belt-buckle of an Irish Volunteer uniform: Gott Mit Uns. It wasn’t Irish. I asked her what it meant. ‘It’s German, ‘ she told me.‘God is with us. The Kaiser, out of the goodness of his heart, sent over some uniforms for the Irish Volunteers.’  What a kind man! I wonder how his chemists got on.

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Kipling was a strong advocate of the war until the day an irate father challenged him at a recruiting rally. ‘Why don’t you send your own bloody son?’ he shouted. Kipling had done everything he could think of to keep his boy safe but he could no longer shield him. The boy was killed. Kipling learned a hard lesson. When my father died, or as an old soldier, faded away, at the age of 82, my little son wrote in Our News in school: ‘My Grandad died and we have his shell on the mantlepiece.’ It made for a very puzzled teacher. I tried to write about his experience, in my novel, Reprisal. Maybe I should have mentioned his shell. My father would have smiled at the little boy’s version. He would smile too at the sudden enthusiasm for The Great War in Ireland after a century of shamefaced denial.

The Great War was the war to end all war. That’s day one over anyway.

117 year old man. Mexicans, Hungarians and plagiarism.

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I read recently, that the Mexicans have a belief: ‘You are not dead until the last person to speak your name, is dead.’  By that reckoning, Achilles is still going strong, three thousand years on. Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun and Adolf Hitler will be around for a long time, plying their grisly trade. They are the connoisseurs of death. By comparison with us human beings,  scorpions, snakes, funnel-web spiders and sharks are mere amateurs when it comes to notching up the death toll. Only mosquitoes, viruses and bacteria  are more proficient than we are at causing death——up to now anyway. We grew up, during The Cold War, under the threat of total nuclear annihilation. That would make us the winners. As the most intelligent and advanced species on the planet, it is only fair that we should win. (George W. Bush, leader of the free world, called it ‘Nucular’ destruction. It probably doesn’t matter what you call it, in the long run. My father was very strict about correct pronunciation.)

That little fellow is my father. I see him in my grandchildren. I rarely mention the names of his parents. They are almost gone. He was an orphan at the age of five. He came to school in Skerries, to the nuns.  He often mentioned his two best friends there, Willie and Paddy Doyle, from South Africa.  We spoke about them the other day,  so they are still alive somewhere. What else would a fellow do, when he grew up, but get involved in the most exciting thing to happen in the whole world? In fact it was a world war. Everyone was getting involved in the great war for civilisation, the war to end all wars. It seemed like a good idea, a happy Odyssey. Poets enthused about it. Orators orated about it. Politicians advocated it. Crowds cheered and off marched the young men.

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He loved to wander over the fields in the morning, looking for mushrooms. I can still feel the thrill of finding little white buttons peeping through wet grass, early in the morning.  The French are great for foraging wild foods in fields and forests. For the last century they have also foraged for unexploded shells, mines, gas cannisters and previously un-located bodies. In death the soldiers are accorded a respect and consideration not given to them in life. Commemoration has become a duty, a vocation, an industry and a tourist attraction. This is the village of Beaumont Hamel. My father was there in autumn, a good time for mushrooms, although I doubt if he got much chance to look for them. He went with The Royal Dublin Fusiliers to capture the village. It was in the last days of the Battle of the Somme, a record breaking battle in terms of casualties. By the time the village was captured there was nothing left of it, except a  shard of glass from a window of the church. It was snowing. No sign of mushrooms.  He was in a field hospital and we were lucky. He lived to show us all the best places for foraging and to warn us against poisonous fungi. He lived to talk about the stupidity of it all. ‘On balance, it was an unsettling experience for a young chap.’ Understatement of the century, perhaps.

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This is the Slaughter Tree, no understatement there. It was a witness to the massacre of young Newfoundlanders. It was a world war, of course. Everybody had to be there. The witness tree is dead. It saw too much. It gave up the ghost. The workmen maintain the headstones meticulously, sharpening up the inscriptions with dental drills. Their names live forever. or so they say.

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The Hungarian writer, George Mikes, maintained that there is nothing wrong with plagiarism. It’s a compliment. The essential thing is to show good taste. I will plagiarise my grandson, Victor’s, prize-winning poem. He never met his great-grandfather. He is now a year older than the youngest soldier to die in the war, a fourteen year old child from Waterford, named John Condon. Thank you, Victor.

A river of blood

Fills the trenches,

An undying thirst only a bullet quenches,

Brother and brother,

Hand in hand,

Fighting together to save our land.

Men, old and young,

Grasping their guns,

As the toxic gas fills their lungs,

Death after death,

Young and old,

The only survivors are the brave and the bold,

War never changes. That is no lie.

War will be the same as long as people die.

In going through some of my father’s books the other day, I came across  A Happy Odyssey, by General Carton de Wiart, a British general of Belgian extraction. He had one eye and one arm. He was famous for the amount of shrapnel that rattled around  inside him. ‘I met him once,’ my father told me. ‘I was sent out, shortly after the Armistice, to get some mistletoe for the officers’ mess. I had a lively horse under me, so I took him into a field to run some of the steam out of him. The blasted horse bolted and ran out onto the road. I was spotted by this general in a staff car, Carton de Wiart. He gave me a bollocking for galloping a horse on the paved road. I felt a complete fool, saluting with a fistful of mistletoe.’  Afterwards he found two dishevelled German soldiers hiding in the woods.They surrendered to him. They didn’t know that the war was over. One of them was seriously wounded. His companion had gathered a helmet full of mushrooms. It was no happy Odyssey for them. I wonder if they ever made it home. Soldiers of The Great War, Known Unto God.

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The family of Arthur Conway Young didn’t buy that line either. His Name Liveth Forever.  Their anger blazes out from the inscription. I must ask my Dad if he ever met him.

Slip-sliding away

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A century ago, this was a cottage. It had a slated roof, a garden and a picket fence. Children played on the strand in summertime. I have seen the pictures… happy holiday-makers returning to Skerries, to the place where their grandfather, Reverend Shegog, was the Minister in the Church of Ireland. You may have seen his photograph, a tall, bearded man in his cork lifejacket, supervising the launching of the lifeboat at the harbour. You may have heard the story of his son, a doctor, who died in the Great War.  A week after his death, a telegram arrived to his quarters, announcing the birth of a child, a child who never knew his father. Old stories, that hang in barely remembered shreds, like the weeds on the crumbling cliff. Perhaps my recollection of the stories, is crumbling too. They echo, like the distant calls of children on a strand, or the cries of the nesting fulmars. Even the fulmars must give some thought to the changes taking place around them.

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Fulmarus glacialis is the official name. The fulmars have lived here ever since the last Ice Age clothed the rock in boulder clay and fine gravel, to make an island. They live on fish, shellfish and small crustaceans, a gourmet diet. They can’t go hungry on Shennick Island.The Dutch name for fulmar is mallemuk meaning foolish gull. The Dutch are mistaken. The fulmars nest together in apparent amity. They stay together all winter, sheltering from the storms. Their food supply is immediately below them. They glide down to forage and soar back up to their ledges, masters of their element. They warn intruders off, with raucous cries.  Gah, Gah, Gah.

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The storms and high tides rend the island. They undermine the cliff. They spill the boulders and gravel onto the strand and sweep it all away. We watch as  the profile changes from year to year. We are concerned. We see the traces of human effort falling away. We experience regret for what is lost. Men stayed overnight in the cottage, to steal a march on the tide, when they went out to collect the woar. The winkle-pickers of today would be glad of four walls and a roof. They come from Latvia. They tell me that they don’t feel the cold. They work at night, with miners’ lamps, moving, like Will o’ the Wisps, on the dark foreshore.

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You can read the story of the Ice Age in the layers, the black marl under the sand of the beach, the rough clay and boulders torn from the bedrock; the fine gravel, deposited grain by grain, in the beds of sub-glacial streams. The sea will take it all, the gravel and the jagged stones, sift and sort it and send it somewhere else, to make beaches of fine sand and drifts of gleaming pebbles. Nothing is lost; everything is changed. The granite pillar above the cottage proclaims ownership of the island, His Majesty’s War Office, ‘in Good King George’s glorious day’. The martello tower belonged to His Majesty. He prepared for war. The gulls and the pigeons own it now.  But for how long more?

For the present, the crabs and winkles welcome the shelter of the rocks and stones. The cockles burrow in the mud and sand. The mussels open and close with the tide. The mussel beds suffered greatly in the recent storms, but already the tiny spat is clothing the rocks, like a fine fur. Give them four years and they will make a tasty meal. People will come to dig for lugworms and probe for razor fish. The tide will ebb and flow, undermining and sifting. Gravity will bear down inexorably. The cottage wall will crack asunder. The tower will creep closer and closer to the edge. You and I won’t be around to see it fall.

The fulmars will move back a foot or two, with every slump and subsidence. They will soar on the updraughts and build their nests in the sun. They will dine together in some style. They will not send their children to war. Foolish gulls? I don’t think so.

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