Cod and Ships. Apples and Onions.


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.


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.

Bark yard 2015 and trees etc 059Bark yard 2015 and trees etc 060

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.


(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.


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.


(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.)

Identity, the crowned heads of Europe, all the king’s horses.

Broken dish, blossom 013

I heard on the television, that the people of Cornwall, the Duchy of Cornwall, to be exact, have been granted recognition of their distinct ethnic identity——-on a par with the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish. Who granted that?  Where was it before it was granted? I’m sure they are very grateful. However, the Cornish people were there before the Romans arrived in Britain and long before the English. I didn’t know that the Irish, Welsh and Scots had been granted a distinct ethnic identity. This could catch on. It’s no wonder that the Scots are talking about independence and Irish Travellers are agitating for distinct ethnic identity. Russian speaking Ukrainians are at this moment, attempting to move a huge chunk of the country across the border into the Russian federation. It’s all about identity: language, dress, music, dance, race, religion, food, customs, land, neighbours, drink, size, ancient alliances, legends, history, poetry, ancient grievances, etc. etc…… I make that seventeen points. Woodrow Wilson relied on a mere fourteen points when he re-drew the map of Europe at Versailles. Having thrown several cats among all the pigeons, he buggered off into ‘Splendid Isolation’. You recall the instruction on the fireworks- ‘light the touch paper and retire.’

We were never allowed to celebrate Guy Fawkes Day. It didn’t happen in Ireland. It came around every year in The Beano and the Dandy. It seemed a lost opportunity to make a few bob. ‘Penny for the Guy, sir.’  It seemed like a lot of fun. Guy Fawkes was a good, Catholic incendiary, in the days when Catholics themselves were often ignited for their beliefs. It would have been treason to celebrate the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot. We used Hallowe’en and May Eve as excuses for bonfires, with the traditional burning of old beds and motor tyres. We roasted potatoes in the ashes and spat out the evil-tasting results. It’s tradition. It goes back to the ancient Celts, who introduced motor tyres into Ireland thousands of years ago. The evidence for this survives in place names containing the Irish word Ath , meaning a Ford: Athy, Athenry, Athboy, Athlone, Ath Cliath (Dublin itself, the centre of the ancient Celtic motor trade. I drove a few archaeological treasures  myself, over the years.) It’s part of what we are. In Northern Ireland it is traditional to march, make noise and insult your neighbours to celebrate the victory of a Dutch king over an English king, aided and abetted by a French king, all fought out on Irish soil. All traditions are deserving of Parity of Esteem. In the emerging new South Africa, the Rainbow Nation, the Zulus were granted the right to keep their cultural weapons.  Just try taking them away. I saw that film too.

That carving dish belonged to my grandmother and possibly to her grandmother too. It is not a heavy handed metaphor for the fracturing of Europe and the deposition of the crowned heads. It was on top of a dresser in the dining room. Our children dislodged it during a chase and nearly ‘crowned’  themselves, as my mother would have said. I put the bits in a bag, with a view to reassembling  them. They are still in the bag. There was another, bigger dish at home, as I recall. It had a pattern of little trenches and a hollow to catch the blood. (Not a metaphor for World War I.)  You were allowed to ask for the ‘bloody gravy’ at dinner time, without a reprimand for bad language. ‘ May I have some of the bloody gravy, please?’  You did get a funny look. You couldn’t extend this to the bloody spuds, the bloody cabbage or the bloody salt. The Sunday roast. It’s tradition. My father prided himself on his mint sauce;  none of that bloody commercial stuff.

Empires fragment into countries, provinces, counties, parishes and townlands, baronies, even duchies, towns, villages, neighbourhoods and streets, all with their sense of their own identity. Young lads develop a sense of their own territory. The Rush Road lads were the toughest. The Cabra lads and the Balbriggan Road lads were hardy too. The Town lads were a mixed bag. I belonged to the Dublin Road lads.  I don’t recall any serious trouble with any of them except for a few taunts and  inconclusive chases and a stand-off over a lark’s nest in the Ballast Pit. There were rules governing the taking of birds’ eggs. We arrived too late. The eggs had hatched. The chicks opened their mouths like little purses, pleading for grub and grubs. There were accusations of excessive plundering and bad form.  It was a case for The League of Nations or whatever they were calling it at the time. There was no danger of violence, because we had Ronnie Duff.  As President Higgins keeps saying, the people live in the shelter of one another.  All the old enemies are now friends. We lived in the shelter of Ronnie Duff. He seemed like an amiable giant. He could handle plough horses and drive carts. He did a man’s work at the threshing while we caffled around in the chaff. He often carried my younger brother on his shoulders when we went on expeditions, taking great care to put him down gently, for fear of stinging his feet. He scored  nine hundred runs at cricket on the beach. We wouldn’t let him declare, although he wanted to. Fortunately the tide came in and stopped play, or we would be there still. On wet days we could read the fascinating books in his house : the Daily Mail History of the Great War. There were maps and photographs. There was a General Birdwood.

My father told a story about General Birdwood. Some Australian soldiers lounging by the roadside, neglected to get up and salute the general. ‘Don’t you know who this is? ‘ expostulated a staff officer. ‘This is General Birdwood.’  A laconic Australian asked the clinching question: ‘Well why doesn’t he stick a feather in his arse, like any other bird would?’ Insouciance was part of the Australian identity. Insouciance was all bloody fine for the Australians, but out of order at Sunday dinner.

Ronnie’s family were Protestant.  Nevertheless he was our hero. The only serious discrimination I recall was when his sister, Anne, called for my sister, Anne, after tea. We were usually in the middle of the Rosary, down on our benders, praying away as fast as we could for the conversion of Russia and the release of Cardinal Mindzenty. (It worked.) Anne was allowed to sit in an armchair and read The Beano. If she chuckled at all, it was not at our culture. The Beano made the whole world kin.

We all have a romantic notion of Cornwall; pirates and smugglers; squires and mounted dragoons; slow moving excise men; houses on high cliffs with the wild Atlantic below; heroines and Gypsies on bleak moorlands. More than anyone else, even King Arthur, Robert Newton has given us Cornwall. He will have to appear on the currency, ahar! There will be no need for diligent scholars, giving night classes, to revive the ancient language. The whole world knows how to speak Cornish. Here he be in Treasure Island. Look it up on YouTube.  Bring aft the grog and relax for a moment with Long   John Silver himself.


By the way, I now live on the Rush Road, so watch it.