The Mists of Time. The focal point.


When I first went to school, some years ago, we wrote with chalk, on slate boards. The slate was our tablet, computer, calculator, i phone. There were lines scratched on one side to assist with writing and numbers. The other side was for drawing. The slates were distributed for certain lessons and gathered up afterwards. They made a satisfying clatter on the desks and a more satisfying clatter when a slate collector dropped a pile of them on the floor. I was quite good at drawing a white disc, starting with a dot and spiralling outwards and outwards. You blew the excess chalk onto your fellow students when the teacher was looking elsewhere. It made them sneeze. It made you sneeze. We drew houses: window, door,window downstairs. Window, window upstairs. A curving path up to the door. A chimney…teetering precariously on the roof.  Andy Radley showed me how to put a chimney straddling the ridge. It was my first introduction to perspective. There had to be smoke, lots of it curling up into the sky. I should say welkin but I didn’t know the word at the time. Apparently smoke or the absence of smoke in your drawing, is an indicator of personality.  On calm evenings, smoke and fog began to gather in the low fields. Every household made a contribution. It made for wonderful winter sunsets. Cotman, a notable English artist, attributed his love of watercolour to smog. Turner made it into something glorious.


In the early days of our state, enlightened people stipulated that children should enjoy music, nature studies, science and physical education as well as the three Rs. It was a noble aspiration, building on the ideals of the early educators of the previous century. I take some pride in the fact that my mother formed the first orchestra in a Preparatory Training College for future teachers. She never ceased to take pride in her pupils and their achievements. She was also good at lighting a fire: ‘Get me the paper and sticks and fetch some coal and I’ll light the fire.’ No trouble at all. She struggled with wet turf and coal shortages during the forties, making a Turneresque contribution to the twilight hours.The Romans called the hearth focus, the centre of family life.  Everyone gravitates to a fire. It’s a primitive thing, keeping fear of the darkness and wild beasts away. It keeps body and soul together in the long, dark nights after Samhain. It is the indispensable metaphor for love and passion. Human warmth. Stretch out your hands and feet to the fire, but beware of chilblains. Like the writing slates, chilblains have been consigned to the past. Children sit in heated classrooms and work with computers. My grandson’s teacher, in Senior Infants, says; ‘Hocus pocus. Now let’s focus.’ It works every time. Magic words and not a slate in sight.

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They meant well, those early idealists, wanting only the best for the children of the new state, but their aspirations were cramped by lack of funds and an increasingly narrow interpretation of what education should be. By the time I got to school, most of the ‘extras’ had given place to a concentration on the ‘core subjects’, English, Irish, sums and religion. We did, however, have painting. Nobody believes me when I tell them that we chewed the ends of (used)matchsticks to make paint brushes. After a serious outbreak of arson in Dublin, Mick Carron informed me that they caught the two fellows who burned down Dockrells. ‘Who were they?’ I should have known better than to ask. ‘Maguire and Paterson.’ Even the dead matchsticks could make a haimes of a picture by sticking through the wet paper. Might as well use it to light the fire..eventually. I painted the pictures in the catechism book and worried about getting into trouble for blasphemy. Lots of haloes and clouds. I’m not too keen on the fires of Hell though. Seems a bit extreme for an all merciful and loving God. The teacher and the visiting priest were however, quite complimentary. No Hellfire yet.

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Standing on The Mill Hill, I recall the blanketing smog (temperature inversion, if I remember correctly)  and the high buildings that stood out like arctic nunataks. I learned that word later, mountains that stick out from the ice sheet. Nun attacks? Nah. The Holy Faith Convent, long gone, loomed out of the smog. So did the churches and belfries, the Munster and Leinster Bank and the Martello tower. The manager, ‘Tiny’ Callaghan was himself, exceptionally tall. I often saw him returning from the fields on a misty evening, after a day’s  shooting. I’d swear there was snow on his hat. I didn’t comment. He was armed and presumably dangerous. A lone gunman.

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Farmers used to burn the straw after harvest. It made for an apocalyptic sight, a country in flames. They burned hedge cuttings. Gardeners burned leaves. We all burned turf and smoky coal. All forbidden now. The smog swirled into the hospital corridors, following the throngs of asthma, bronchitis and flu sufferers in winter. The air is cleaner now. Bright orange lichens grow on roofs and walls. There is a nationwide ban on smoky coal. Bord na Móna will no longer extract peat for power generation. Cigarettes have gone up in price again. Houses are built without chimneys. Surely someone will invent a ‘vaping’ device for the old chimneys so that houses can look more, well, homely. There are fake-flame electric fires. You can get a video of a fire to play on your television. If he lived today, Turner would be out of a job. So would Dr. Jekyll and his evil alter ego.  Jack the Ripper would be spotted immediately if he attempted to slink about the streets of Whitechapel. I suppose we could import some smog from China, just for nostalgia’s sake. They seem to have rather a lot of the stuff.

As for nun attacks, one of the hazards of going for a walk with the Old Man was the fact that he was related to quite a few of the Holy Faith nuns. The walked in threes. He made strenuous efforts to avoid meeting them and the long, solicitous conversations that followed. He was educated by the nuns from the age of five. He spoke of how they inked in little bathing togs on the Joshua Reynolds cherubs on the cover of the hymn books. Reynold must have been a blasphemer too. I remember him leaping in desperation through a gap in a hedge on the Mill Lane. He straddled the barbed wire. The Old man, not Sir Joshua.  ‘Oh good Jesus! (Blasphemy) The bloody nuns.’ Foremost among them was his first cousin, Sister Alphonsus, a kindly but formidable woman. ‘Come back here, Tom Ryan.’ Nabbed again and trying to pretend that he had merely turned aside to light a cigarette. ‘Bloody Hell!’  With a decent bit of smog he might have got clean away, across Mick Moles’s’ field, fading into the gloom like Mr. Hyde.


I see they caught the two fellows who popularised  bronchial disorders in Dublin— Kapp and Peterson. I think that gag requires a bit of work.

Railway art, crocodile tears and Hamlet.

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You never regret a railway journey, no matter how crowded or hot the train may be or how glum your fellow passengers are. There is always that childish air of promise, some surprise to intrigue or divert  your mind. Your companions may be caught in a moment of suspended animation or indeed in animated conversation. The train presents opportunities for concentrated people-watching, probably the oldest entertainment in the world. You must keep an impassive poker face. Or you can look out the window. A vast cyclorama unfolds as you go along: sheep grazing, a man ploughing with a tractor, birds descending on the furrows, golfers deliberating, boats on the dry, back gardens with the bric a brac of family life strewn about the lawn, projected suburban developments long abandoned and overgrown with weeds. Three jet planes there, racing westwards. The passengers are too high to see the ducks in Rogerstown estuary or the reflections of the trees where once there were orchards and strawberry beds.

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The young lady beside me was applying her mascara, preparing a face to meet the faces that she meets. It’s a delicate process. It took her all the way to Malahide to get it to her satisfaction.  I thought she looked okay before she started. Strange stuff, mascara. I looked it up. It was used in ancient Egypt by priests and pharaohs and notably by Elizabeth Taylor. It was compounded from wax, kohl, soot, the juices of berries and crocodile stool. I looked that up too. You don’t want to know. Victorian ladies were very fond of mascara and spent hours every day, applying their cosmetics. There was no shortage of soot, what with children climbing up chimneys all the time. Gentlemen used mascara to darken their moustaches. The children in the chimneys had no need of makeup. It would have been wasted on them. Kohl to Newcastle. Just a thought.

Eye liner? Young girls emphasise their eyes with black stuff. It makes the eyes small and sneaky looking. A pity. The windows of the soul.  Eyebrow pencil is a hoot. The eyebrows are painfully plucked away and then replaced further up the forehead, with black paint. It makes for an expression of perpetual surprise. I bet the crocodiles would have been surprised too, if they had known what was being done with their stools. God has given you one face and you paint yourselves another. Hamlet. W Shakespeare. The illusion of beauty might be better if it were not accomplished in public, under the eyes of strangers. Magicians guard their secrets jealously.

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The Victorians had many other accomplishments worth noting. They made cast iron a thing of beauty and utility. They built railways to link countries in meshes of steel. They strung wires and cables to create a world-wide-web. Their municipal and railway building were works of elegance. They invented new colours that a pharaoh might envy. They developed industrial war. They developed photography to record their achievements for better or for worse.  They grew great beards and Dundreary whiskers—the men mostly. They did not invent that ugly perspex, or the aerosol spray can. No wonder Turner and The Impressionists loved the iron, the light and smoke of the railway age.

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That shed had an elegance of its own. It was built by craftsmen in time gone by and defaced by modern vandals. It is difficult to admire graffiti artists. Their slogans are illegible. They appear in the most unlikely places, no doubt at great danger to the artist in question. Perhaps it is akin to the Victorian desire to place a flag on inaccessible peaks. There is an air of revolt and anger about graffiti.  I saw one once, Sod the Ozone Layer. Enough said.  And yet, in certain circumstances, they might have a point. That oil tank is more interesting, even though I can’t read what the artists have written. A lot of work went into it. Maybe like WWI dazzle paint, you don’t see an ugly tank at all.  A spot of crocodile stool might complete the effect.

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The building behind is still ‘a blank canvas’. We shall see.

Rosy-fingered Dawn

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Equinox, March, September. 

The Greeks as always, had a phrase for it, Eos Rhododactylos, Rosy-fingered Dawn.  They also had a myth to express the wonder of the Sun rising every day. Eos, the goddess of the dawn. opens the gates of heaven to let the horses of the Sun gallop out into the sky. Homer used this as the prelude to the epic events of the day. We are more prosaic. We don’t buckle on our armour and go to battle,’far on the ringing plains of windy Troy. We don’t vie with heroes or drag our conquests behind our chariots in victory. The last time that Irishmen went to battle near Troy was in 1915, at Gallipoli. They had no epic poet to celebrate their deeds. The poets of their war soon learned that there was little to celebrate. They were the sad young men who have left a legacy of grief and loss.

An old Skerries man, interviewed about his experience of Gallipoli, spoke of an attack that soon degenerated into a squalid fight with bayonets. ‘We were hard at it till evening.’ For all Homer’s enthusiasm and that of his successors and imitators, for entrails and blood, there was no glory in that old man’s war. I recall him standing silent and glum, at his door, for most of my childhood years. He had a vacant look in his eyes, but I’m sure he saw Gallipoli all the days of his life.  

Back Camera

Christmas Day

A lesser poet than Homer, Theo Dorgan, voiced a universal truth. He was asked about his favourite song. ‘Any song that starts with Well, I woke up this morning…he replied. Is waking up not an epic achievement in its own right? We travel alone for hours in the realm of dreams and darkness . Sometimes we experience joy and laughter. Sometimes we meet our parents or long lost friends. Sometimes we travel to places of terror or absurdity. Then we return, with the gradual light of dawn, like Ulysses returning to his Ithaca, after long wanderings and adventures in strange places. No wonder the Australian Aborigines talk about their time of myth and unimaginable antiquity as The Dreamtime.

A myth takes hold of people and conditions their thinking. The Australians and New Zealanders cling to the story of Gallipoli. It shapes their view of themselves. They find a kind of victory in a bloody defeat. We are entering a decade of commemoration of the violent events that shaped the century. If there is talk of victory and glory, think of that old Skerries man standing at his door.

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The equinoctial Sun rises, for me, over Shennick Island to the east.The mid-winter Sun manages to heave itself over the south-eastern horizon, near Lambay. I watch it beginning its return journey, as the world tilts again towards the light, an inch every day. It is no wonder that the ancients saw it as a god. No wonder that the consummate artist, Turner, declared the Sun to be  God. On a dark, damp, November morning, it does no harm to think of the goddess, Rosy-fingered Eos, opening the gates of heaven over Saint Patrick’s Island, away to the north -east, after a few fleeting hours of luminous darkness. In the meantime, while I wait for summer and pre-dawn birdsong through open windows, I’m glad that I woke woke up this morning.