The Lane Pictures

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I can still remember, some sixty five years ago or more, the shock of surprise on looking down the various lanes leading to the South Strand and seeing Rockabill lighthouse at the end of each one. It confirmed in me the childhood suspicion that Rockabill is really a ship. No matter where I go, it slides along the horizon, keeping pace with me. I knew nothing of perspective or triangulation…still don’t know much…but it keeps pace with me when I go for a walk, sometimes hiding behind an island and then darting out like a sheepdog, running away to north or south to herd the boats towards the harbour in safety…mixed metaphors there.  I regard these lanes as being parallel. Parallel lines meet in infinity, so Rockabill, being their focal point, must be quite close to infinity.

It is impossible to walk down any of these lanes without encountering memories. Halfway down Fairs’ Lane, we queued for the cheap seats in Flanagans’ picture house, usually in the rain, but who worried about rain? Sophisticates, with a few more bob, queued under an awning around the corner. They sat in the raised seats and looked down on the plebs. A plaque commemorates old Flanagan who introduced electricity to Skerries. Had he not done so, we would have spent our evenings in darkness and gloom, instead of joining in the excitement  and glamour of Hollywood. But it is fitting that the lane is Fairs’ Lane, not Flanagans’. Johnny Fair,with his grocer’s shop on the corner, lived up to his name. A decent, universally respected, Northern Protestant, in the days when such things were automatically registered in the mind, he was a fair man to talk. If you were waiting to collect stuff for your Mammy, you knew that you were doomed when he leaned his left elbow on the counter and put his chin on the palm of his hand, in conversation with some adult. This could cost you half an hour of your life. I should remember the content, the fascinating details of village life, the gossip, the news, the scandal, but the time passed in a sort of catatonic trance as I read the labels on the storage boxes behind the counter and shifted from one foot to the other, rehearsing my list of ‘messages.’ Bizarrely, the Volunteers, during the War of Independence, got buckets of paraffin ‘on tick’, from Johnny Fair and headed off across the strand to burn down the Coast-Guard station. I wonder if the bill was ever paid.

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The perks of the job. Mr. Weldon was a major shareholder and manager in the quarry. Did he bring work home to make a very fine kerb for his railings? Did he perhaps, secrete these blocks about his person, when going home in the evening?  There is an urban legend about a worker in General Motors who pilfered a complete car, in installments over a period of years. By the time the vehicle was assembled, it had gone out of fashion and spare parts were hard to come by. Mr. Weldon’s railings and kerbstones still retain an old-fashioned elegance.

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This was O Neills’ Lane to us and more puzzlingly, Bombush Lane. I enquired. It was Bonne Bouche, pleasant bite. John O Neill sold sweets in his Aladdin’s cave of a shop. Another Northerner with a facility for chat. Another half hour of your life gone but worth it. I heard about the White-Russian lady gymnast who married a farmer back where John came from. “She wore a leotard, Master.” He always called me ‘Master’, as is the custom back where John came from. “I tell you, Master, we never saw anything like it in those days, back where I came from. They came from all over to see her. She set up these bars in the yard and used to swing on them, over and back. Over and back. Oh Mother o’ God! Heh,heh.”  What would John think of the modern garb? Oh Mother o’ God!

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You can say anything to anyone in a pub, as long as it’s only  ‘slagging.’ You must say it to his face. If you say it behind his back, it’s slander.   Slagging is not as brutal as the American custom of ‘The Roast.’ There is a strong element of affection and respect in slagging. There is the assumption that your interlocutor can give as good as he gets. Alcohol helps.  “Hey Flanagan”challenged Mike Manning, a big and jovial man. “Your family made quite a contribution to Skerries over the years.”  “Indeed we did,” replied Leo. He was justly proud of his family’s contribution. “So how come there isn’t a road or even a lane named after you?” Fair question. “I’d rather have that than have a Flanagan’s Opening with a public convenience at the bottom of it.”  Fair answer too. Mike laughed.

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McLoughlins’ Lane is Monument Lane or Carnival Lane, depending on your frame of mind. Be careful of your footing. In wet weather it can be mucky. A man came out of the back entrance of The Dublin Bar one night and went to take a short cut home. He was noted for his stammer. He missed the entrance to McLoughlin’s lane and bounced off the wall. He had another go. He hit the wall on the other side and fell backwards. He got up and tried again. He missed again. He got up and dusted himself down. He regarded the entrance indignantly. “B-b-b-bred, b-b-born and r-rared in the e-e-effin town an’ I can’t even get out of it.” He should have a lane named after him.

June 7th of this year marks the centenary of the torpedoing of The Lusitania, off the Old Head of Kinsale lighthouse. This obscenity gave us the concept of ‘a crime against humanity.’ You would think that humanity would stop and think and even pull back from the horrors of war. Not a chance. It set the fashion for total war and innumerable crimes against humanity in the bloodiest century to date. Among the 1198 people destroyed on that date, (It took 15 minutes) was Sir Hugh Lane, benefactor and connoisseur of art.  You can go and see some of his paintings in the Municipal Gallery in Dublin and remember him, perhaps as an antidote to the the commemoration of a decade of violence and mayhem. In the meantime, my ocean liner goes full steam ahead in every weather, with a cargo of memories.(I hate that cliché Memory Lane but it’s almost unavoidable.) Remember the good things and the good people and commemorate them in your mind. Fair play to them.

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Rockabill Lighthouse. Abel Rock.

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A man at Speakers’ Corner told a sad story; “When I was a young lad goin’ to school in Dublin long ago.” he said, “I learned trigonometry. Do y’know what trigonometry is?”  I kept my head down. Of course I know what trigonometry is, but I have a mortal fear of street performers of any kind. Didn’t I give some of the best hours of my young life to Tan a over 2, Sines and Cosines, Logs and Antilogs? I even painted the Cosine page in my log tables red, to avoid a tendency to read the Cosine instead of the Sine. That could result in my space probe failing to rendezvous with the comet, Giotto, by several million miles and probing the Bog of Allen instead.  ‘It’s Tan a over 2. Stupid boy!’  I never quite cracked the language of mathematics. Napier filled a whole book with page after page of numbers and it became a best-seller. Pure genius.  ” It’s all about angles and triangles,” explained the man. “I learned how to measure the height of any tree or a lighthouse or a skyscraper. It was amazin’. I decided to get a job measurin’ lighthouses, but when I left school I found out that all the lighthouses in the world had already been measured. That cured me of ambition. I’ve never worked a day in me life since then”.

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As a child, I suspected that Rockabill was a ship. It has a chimney. It has a tender for the coal, just like a steam engine. It definitely moves, shunting up and down the horizon, depending on where you are standing. You need to keep your eye on it to see how it moves. Walk along the coastal path and it follows you, sometimes hiding behind the islands and then slipping out suddenly to surprise you with a new vista. I painted a picture of it and was roundly abused by a man who could see it when he was shaving every morning.  “Where’s the gap?” he challenged me. “There’s a gap between the two rocks.”  “Not where I was standing,” I replied lamely. “I was further to the south. Everything depends on your point of view.” He snorted derisively. “You’re wrong, you know,” he insisted. “There’s a gap.”  There is a gap.  A German U Boat sat up on that gap at low tide to effect repairs. It then went on to torpedo the mailboat Leinster  with great loss of life. My father missed that boat, because he went on the beer. Who says that beer is bad for your health?

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How could you do trigonometry anyway, with all those noisy neighbours? The rocks are covered by clouds of kittiwakes, terns and gulls, shags and cormorants. Look at your man showing off, the king of the castle. Little guillemots bobbed and dived on the calm surface of the water.  There is abundant guano, often deposited in elegant triangles, the apex pointing to the nest. The British War Office appointed the artillery branch of the army to begin the great Ordnance Survey of Ireland. Ordnance relies on mathematics for accuracy. They began at Poolbeg Lighthouse in Dublin Bay, fixing the Ordnance Datum (OD) at a low  spring tide and triangulated from that point, covering the whole island with a web of triangles. They then went on to anglicise all the place names, e.g.  Skeheenarinky. It sounds like gibberish. It was Sceachín an  Rinnce , the little thorn bush of the dancing—The Little People dancing  at midnight in the moonlight. Be wary of the Little People.  There are stories and myths in the old Irish place names, if you have the time and patience to tease them out. The Ordnance Survey nailed everything down. Now they use GPS and satellites to keep everyone in their sights. Even the OD has moved to Donegal. We have come up in the world.

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Alice took us around the rock in a gentle curve. The islands swam from one point to another. The birds screamed at our intrusion. Perhaps they knew that Mike was about to catch some of their fish. We spliced the main brace to christen Michael’s new boat. A porpoise rolled on the surface. He shrugged and went below. Porc pisces —sea pigs?  A gannet dived like white lightning. We noted a few brown jellyfish drifting languidly in the tide. Alison and Margaret took time out. Where else would you rather be?

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I looked out this morning to check on that gap. The Rockabill was gone. There was a sea mist. Maybe, of course, it had merely gone walkabout. There was a time when it warned us of fog. Waw wah, waw wah, like a sick cow. It was a comforting sound when you lay in bed at night. Someone was keeping watch. Then it changed to Woop woop, woop woop. It had become a destroyer, steaming out of harbour to hunt for U Boats. Now it is silent. There is no need for watchers on the tower or foghorns to talk to the ships. All is electronic and of course, infallible.Tara, Rockabill, Harbour  end 065

There is a groove on the garden wall where the lighthouse keepers rested their telescope.  They focussed on the white wall of Flower and MacDonald’s coal yard. I was talking to a lady about this one time, when suddenly, to my surprise, she went into a spasmodic dance, waving her arms about like a mantis. I thought it might be because of some hypnotic power that I might have over women—but no. “What was that all about?” I asked. “I was saying goodnight to my Daddy,” she said. “We used to talk by semaphore at the  the coal yard wall.”

How the image  in the lens, of his little girl with her flags, must have warmed his heart , during his lonely vigil on Rockabill.