Music Hath Charms. Church Street.

I remember, I remember, the house where I was born…

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Well, to be truthful, I don’t. I left it when I was about eighteen months old. All I know about our family’s time in Church Street is hearsay and conjecture. I feel that I should have some notion of the house but I have nothing except fragments of anecdotes, told by older siblings in that patronising way…’but you wouldn’t remember that. Ha! you were too young.’ Now the house with its familiar street-scape, is passing into history.

Everything is in a state of flux. They speak about future-shock, the shock we experience when familiar sights and practices are supplanted by new things. That which obtained in our childhood is normal. Everything after that stage is interesting, exciting, a change for the better, unsettling, sad, perturbing, crazy, a disgrace , even an outrage. Select the category that suits your mood at the time. The young will think it’s ‘deadly’. Older people will grow to accept innovation, may even say…’about bloody well time..’ We move on…but inevitably, we look back.

My parents rented that house from Mrs. Behan, a good neighbour, in the red house next door, a handy woman to have around. She helped Dr. Heffernan to bring me into the world, into the light as the Spanish say. I understand that it had indoor plumbing, a big consideration in the cold nineteen forties. It had a long garden leading down to Tennis Court Lane, where many adventures took place…’you couldn’t remember that…  Yeah, yeah. ‘The Pony Daly riding his horse into Kitty Kingston’s shop…but you couldn’t…..’  I know. I know. A neighbour’s child had a devastating answer to that:  ‘Yes I can. I was still up in Heaven and I could see everything.’  His sister replied archly:  ‘That’s a big lie. You were in Mammy’s tummy and you couldn’t see a thing.’  When you come into the light, you have a lot of catching up to do.

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My father died thirty six years ago today, more than half of my lifetime ago, yet he remains as vivid as when I was a child. I went to Mass to remember him. I went in by the lane on the South side, because he had taken a scunner against a woman who was in the habit of antagonising Mass-goers passing her house on the other side. Apparently she was good at it. We always went in on the South side. I don’t even know her name but am prepared to take it on trust that she was an old hairpin, a battleaxe, a right shrew, a bit of an old bags.’ (Hearsay, M’lud). The choir sang ‘Morning has broken, like the first morning. Blackbird has spoken…etc.’ I like to think that there were blackbirds in the garden I never knew, when I came into the light.  It was June. They have returned in force to our current garden. Anois teacht an Earraigh… There was a war on. Everything was scarce. There were no lights at night.

My father bought a new hat. It probably cost him a lot of ration coupons. I don’t suppose you remember coupons. I rarely saw him out of doors without his hat, except, one time when he came to call us in from a game of football in Duffs’ field. He went up for a high ball, whipping off his hat and executing a perfect header. We laughed and cheered to think that one so old could be so nonchalant. I took a go on a trampoline in my daughter’s garden. I wasn’t Olympic standard but I wasn’t a disgrace. My grandchildren laughed. One little fellow remarked: ‘He’s just trying to prove that old people aren’t rubbish at doing stuff.’ I did stuff when he was still up in Heaven or in his Mammy’s tummy and couldn’t see a thing..couldn’t possibly remember me doing stuff… Anyway my father’s new hat blew off. He chased it down Church Street, across The Square and on towards Quay Street. I don’t need anyone to tell me that his language was colourful. The hat blew through a gap onto the North Strand. By the dim light of a gibbous moon (writers love gibbous moons) he saw it sailing out to sea, with a fair following wind. When a sharp wind blows down Church Street I doubt if even Jesse Owens could catch it. But it’s an ill wind, as they say and a long road that has no turning. He probably dropped into Glennons to assuage his disappointment, wet his whistle and curse his bad luck.

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New Street, once known as Barter Street, runs at right angles to Church Street. Few of the houses had indoor plumbing. A lad who lived in one of the cottages, used to sing, whenever he was in the W.C. in the garden. He sang not for joy, but because there was no catch on the door. Like the blackbird singing to defend his territory he sang to ward off intruders…Are you going to be in there all day?…  ‘Oh Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling….’ A cry from the heart for indoor plumbing. He had a very good voice…or so I have been told. I couldn’t possibly remember him.  They’ve made a right haimes of the house where I was born and Mrs. Behan’s house and Tommy Dunne’s clay-built cottage, although I couldn’t possibly remember him.

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The priest blessed candles and spoke about light. The choir sang and I listened for his familiar cough. I came out into a biting wind and looked down Church Street, half expecting to see him striding along, whistling, flicking his right foot out slightly, the legacy of an old wound, or perhaps raising his hat to a passing lady, (not the old Biddy on the North side). He even raised his hat to his daughters when he met them in the street. I didn’t see him. Maybe he had nipped into Glennons to have a word with Frank. I hope so.

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When the low sun shines after rain, Church Street is paved with gold. It is. It is. I’ve seen it.  ‘You couldn’t possibly have seen that. It’s silver.’

Silver will do.

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Watchmen and Snorting Coke. Balbriggan Street Corner.

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Photo courtesy of the Ulster American Folk Park 

This photograph is one hundred years old and yet it is as clear as the day it was taken. Only the horse has ignored the instruction to stand perfectly still.  As children, we looked up to men like these, men at ease in the world of hard work, farm animals and machinery powered by muscle power alone. They laboured in harmony with the swing of the farming year. They always seemed to be at ease with their place in the world and with one another. Nevertheless, the work was relentlessly hard. They grumbled and swore when things went wrong. They complained about the weather and at the prices their produce fetched, as farmers still do. They rose at ungodly hours and worked until dark. They tended the land and passed it on to the next generation, when the labour bent and warped them and the rain, seeping through damp clothing, stiffened their joints with arthritis. Yet they were winners in the old sense, struggling with the land and winning a living, when times were good. ‘Strong farmers.’ There is a danger of romanticising that farming life. The title tells another story. How many thousands and thousands of labouring people emigrated to find new and better lives in America and elsewhere. Faraway hills are green. How many disappeared into the great void of emigration. Ireland looks back at centuries of parting. We are good at looking back. We have the sad songs and poetry to prove it. Yet the working year went around. The sun shone and the rain fell. The ground was tilled and the harvest drawn in. Horses plodded down furrows and hooves clip-clopped in the streets. Men in their Sunday suits, stood at Balbriggan Street corner, after half-eleven Mass and discussed the weighty matters of the world.

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The little garden is in itself, a triumph over tarmacadam and concrete but it took away a comfortable nook sheltered by two whitewashed gable ends. A select group of men congregated at this vantage point to talk and smoke and observe the infrequent traffic. I was told by a local historian, i.e. a very old man, that this was the relic of a hiring fair from years long past, a fossil from a distant era, when a day’s labour could be the difference between survival and starvation. They wore their Sunday clothes and invariably their watch chains. They often took out their watches, as if some more pressing business were calling them away. I always wanted a watch and chain and a waistcoat to dangle it from. I wanted to stand in their company, but I was too young and would have had nothing to contribute to the conversation. Like with any good club, non members were rigorously excluded, not by any written constitution or a bag of black balls, but by heredity, seniority and convention. They were generally quiet civil men who would greet even a passing urchin like myself, with a wink or a sideways flick of the head. Like Mass itself, the meeting at Balbriggan Street corner was an integral part of the Sabbath day when labour was temporarily set aside and people greeted their neighbours. By half past one the meeting had thinned out and business was adjourned.

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Around the corner to the left,stood Miss Collins’s shop, flanked by two enamel signs for Players and Goldflake. If you hunkered down you could pretend to be smoking a giant cigarette. This was hilarious. No it wasn’t. Yes it was. Our father would sometimes interrupt the argument by taking us inside for a fizzy drink, ginger beer or American cream soda, while he bought his cigarettes. He was never without his Players medium, except for one winter’s night when supplies ran out and it was too cold and too late to go down the road for more. He was unbearable. ‘Why not ask **** for a couple to tide you over?’  ‘That’s a good idea.’ He mused for a minute. ‘I don’t like that bloody fellow. I wouldn’t want to be beholden to him.’  ‘ You can give them back to him in the morning.’ He poked the fire vigorously. ‘Bloody so and so. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. He’s probably in bed anyway. Bloody layabout. Should get a proper job.’ Everyone was to blame for the shortage of tobacco. We stayed out of his way.

There was a wooden bench against the wall in Miss Collins’s shop, under a picture of a red-faced boy in a state of ecstasy, chewing a Rowntrees fruit gum. We competed in imitating the boy. Hilarious again, until the ginger beer fizzed up the nose. ‘Stop that bloody caffling.’ He was only in the process of replenishing his supplies. Even more hilarious. Splutters all round. Pepsi was even more hazardous and then there was Coke. The whole world drank Coke and sang about it. It was/maybe still is, sophisticated to drink Coke. When we first encountered it, the original cocaine additive had long been removed, but it could still cause havoc if it got up your nose on a Sunday morning in Miss Collins’s shop.

Some of the men from around the corner, came in for tobacco or matches. Our father chatted with them. We kicked our heels and tried to make the drink last. One of the men had a big pocket watch. When he sprang the lid open it chimed or played a tune, like a music box. The notes sprinkled out of the silver case and hung magically in the air. We stopped caffling. He was proud of his watch, knowing the spell it cast. Sometimes at a threshing or in the street, we would stop him and ask the time. He would produce the watch with a smile and play the little tune. The time didn’t matter. He had a moustache and a waistcoat with a chain across the front. Men wore retired Sunday suits to work. They rolled up their shirt sleeves and got on with the job. Strong farmers. Every boy, at some stage in life, wants to be a farmer.

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How could I remember the man on top of the hay cart a century ago? The war was a time warp. Watches were synchronised to the nineteen twenties or thirties. For two decades, farm work reverted to the age of the horse and cart. Traffic disappeared. There was dung in the streets and farmyards in the middle of the town. There was much to talk about at Balbriggan Street corner. The meeting has been adjourned now for many years…..sine die. The garden is looking well.

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At the other end of the row was Annie Murray’s sweet shop. She couldn’t stock ice cream because she had no electricity She had an oil lamp on the counter to keep her warm on a winter’s night. It cast a welcoming glow. I went in for a fizzy drink. That was before children were obliged to become obese and  hyper from fizzy drinks. I asked for a straw. ‘May I have a straw please, Miss Murray?’  ‘What do you want a straw for?’  ‘To drink through.’  ‘Oh, I couldn’t let you do that. Sure there’d be beetles and insects of all kinds in straws.’   Not very sophisticated at all, was she?.

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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