Precision Drill. Gold in the Straw. November Thoughts.


On November 1st, we are entitled, even expected, to think sombre thoughts, but all I could think of was William Morris wallpaper. He created patterns from nature— flowers, birds and leaves to delight the Victorians and later generations, until minimalism took hold and emulsion paint, usually magnolia, covered the world. Everywhere I look, on damp streets, polished by the low winter sun, I see William Morris at work. The Japanese, I gather , refer to retired people as fallen leaves, with nothing better to do than mooch around, looking at things, instead of contributing to the world by working and earning money. I tried that. It didn’t work. I like the leaves when they pile up in the streets or blow around in a gale. I should collect them all and make compost for gardeners. There’s probably a fortune to be made there. The Japanese love gardens. I could probably get an incentive grant to export ……… Some other time.

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The low sun dramatises everything. It picks out the precise lines of the winter cornfields. The parallel lines converge on infinity. Thanks to Jethro Tull and his seed drill, we can appreciate the weave of next year’s crop, only weeks after the harvest and ploughing. That’s not a sombre thought at all. It is a wonder. It is a gamble also, permitted by our relative benign climate.

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There was a Mr Belyaev responsible for corn production in Ukraine and the Russian steppes in the early sixties. The land was ploughed and the seed sown in autumn. It was essential that the seed should sprout before the snow came, so that it would be protected from subsequent frost. Unfortunately the frost came before the snow. They had to wait for spring and the thaw to see what damage had been done. The crop was destroyed. This was not in the script. Mr Belyaev was dismissed in disgrace. Winter in that part of the world, has a way of upsetting the most careful calculations. Cold War warriors rubbed their hands. The Soviets would be starved into submission. They would come to the negotiating table, or whatever. It didn’t happen. They bought great quantities of wheat from America. The price of flour went up sharply on world markets. Our sliced pan became dearer. Not in the script at all.


Duffs’ haggart was here. Memories sprout like the green corduroy rows. There were stacks of bales and ricks of hay, where we played and learned to smoke. Probably not the best place to make a hut and smoke Woodbine. Fortunately I never liked cigarettes. Fortunately we weren’t incinerated. I remember a Traveller from a caravan in the lane, taking hay for his horse. He had permission. He smiled and tugged at the stack. “Tis good hee, isn’t it?”  I’m sure it was and gratefully received. We smiled at his accent from far away. There was a great decency in the Duffs.

In the lean-to cowshed against the wall, lived Neddy, a man who had dropped out of the mainstream of life, after some family tragedy. He slept in the straw, undisturbed by the cattle, like an old Viking warrior in his long-house. I wondered why he lived as a derelict. I wondered what had tipped him over the edge. I wondered whether there might be a sense of relief in throwing in the towel and giving up work, ambition, sartorial and hygienic considerations, family concerns, providing for the future, contributing to society and all that rot. He lived as free as the lillies of the field, but not attired like Solomon in all his glory. I felt guilty because we dropped stones on the corrugated roof, when we were going up Toker Hill. Clatter, clank, clank!! It made him shout and swear. It made us run faster.

In the interests of public decency and out of simple goodness, Mrs. Duff gave him a pair of her husband’s corduroy trousers, mole-skins as they were known at the time. She met him on his daily trudge down the Dublin Road. He bestrode the narrow pavement, not like a colossus, but because his legs were splayed wide apart, (an aspect of the original problem of public decency etc.) “Well, Neddy,” she asked, “how do you like the trousers?”  “Ah, missus,” he replied, “me arse thinks it’s in heaven.”  On another occasion, my mother heard screaming on the road outside. She ran out in alarm. My older brother was trying to drag my younger brother back to the safety of the garden. The three-year-old was protesting violently and resisting all attempts to lift him. As small children can, he had become boneless, a dead weight, a marine ribbon-worm, an amorphous lump of jelly….no disrespect to his current self. Neddy had happened upon the scene. He interpreted it as a severe case of bullying. His sense of justice kicked in. My mother restored order. Neddy pointed an accusing finger at my older brother. “That’s a right cur, whoever owns him.” Seventy something years on, my brother is generally regarded as a decent, upstanding citizen. I sometimes wonder though, if Neddy saw something deeper in him, or had he just got the wrong end of the stick.


November is the month of sombre remembrance. Who sowed this crop? These lads are planted in rows as neat as the rows in which they drilled and exercised and stood to attention. Their fates were not as tidy or orderly. They too were mown down, row upon row. It’s recurrence is almost as predictable as the harvest. Statesmen and military men are great planners. ‘ The sower went out to sow his seed and as he sowed, some fell by the wayside…’ Poor old Neddy was one who fell by the wayside. The cares, riches and pleasures of this world passed him by. When Duffs cleared out the shed after his death, the story was that they filled an enamel basin with small change lost and scattered in the straw, evidence of his disregard for worldly goods. The shed is gone now anyway. That retirement home is no longer available. I must mooch on.

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November the First. Winter is upon us. It is an absolutely beautiful day. Next year’s leaf buds are on the trees and ready to go. That’s not so bad, is it?

Centenaries. Alexander’s War.

It appears that Donetsk Airport has been recaptured yet again. You have probably seen the pictures on the news, of men hosing the site with sub-machine guns. Unfortunately the airport is a ruin. It will be a long while before a traveller will be able to get a cup of coffee and a muffin, to while away the time until the next flight. In years to come, this event will be marked by some as a major defeat and by others as a great victory. It depends on your point of view. Whatever the cost in lives and suffering and the rancour that will live for generations, there will be a hell of a job in reconstructing the place to make it fit for Starbucks or Costa. All that jiggery-pokery with strainers and steam, just to get a cup of coffee. It would make you reach for your Kalashnikov.

For most of us, our introduction to history has been dominated by battles and wars, usually in bold type: The War of Jenkins’s Ear; The Grasshopper War etc. Causes of, Events of, Results of…Write them out neatly with numbers in the margin.  2015 is a good year for centenaries. The first poison gas attack of WWI took place near Ypres in April 1915. Observers saw a green cloud rolling from the German trenches. (The wind was from the east) The watchers took it to be a smoke-screen and hurried to their firing positions .


The results were hideous in human terms…but there was no destruction of property. A triumph for science then? This is the great advantage of gas and biological warfare. With artillery and high explosive bombs, there are no spoils for the victors, just a god-awful mess to clear up. The disadvantage of course, is that the wind can change. Germs don’t discriminate between friend and foe. Nuclear weapons could settle all disputes for once and for all…everywhere. I recall a story that I read as a child, about two warring nations. They agreed to have the peace treaty before they started. They calculated the likely costs and numbers of casualties of the potential war and then handed over the appropriate number of citizens, mostly young men of military age, to the enemy to be sacrificed. This avoided the huge disruption caused by war and the devastating loss of property. Nearly everyone was a victor. There was no collateral damage.  And they all lived happily ever after. Incidentally, the Lilliputians went to war against Blefuscu over which is the correct end of an egg to crack open. It can be messy.

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In the excellent television series, The Sopranos, a gangster tells a story about a funeral, where the clergyman, new to the parish, was at a loss for words. He asked if any of the assembled mafiosi could think of something complimentary to say about the deceased. After a great deal of shuffling, one of them offered: “His brother was worse.” With regard to the Bruce brothers in Ireland, Robert and Edward, this eulogy would fit either of them. Seven hundred years ago, this coming April, a cold north-easterly wafted Edward Bruce and his army to Ireland. The island was in the grip of a particularly cold and wet climatic cycle. Successive harvests had failed. Dead sheep littered the hills. Cattle murrain was widespread. The rivers drowned the fields. What the island needed was a wise and benevolent ruler but we got King Edward Bruce, the last High King of Ireland, by his own say-so, crowned on Saint Brigid’s pleasant hill near Dundalk. He went out from there to ravage his new kingdom, bringing fire, murder and famine to his subjects for three disastrous years. He came to grief on this same hill, stunned by an ‘idiot juggler’ and decapitated by enemies lying in concealment.  The chronicler Friar John Clyn recorded: “There was not done in Erin a better deed…’ Ireland bore the scars of his expedition for many years but there was worse to come. Some few bits of this vile creature lie in Saint Brigid’s churchyard, lamented by nobody. I hope we don’t issue a stamp in his memory.


Two hundred years ago, in March 1815, Paris newspapers announced over several days, Napoleon’s escape from Elba. ‘The Corsican monster has escaped from his lair. Bonaparte has landed in France. Napoleon has arrived in Fontainebleau. Tomorrow The Emperor enters Paris.’ This charismatic war-lord stated, after the loss of yet another army at Leipzig: “In a cause such as mine, the lives of a million men are of no account.” Was he counting the young boys conscripted to win glory for their emperor? He met his Waterloo at, well, Waterloo. What were the odds on that? It appears that he was suffering grievously from haemorrhoids. He spent many of the preceding days in the saddle.  A good vascular surgeon, travelling with the army, might have changed the course of history.

Applications are being accepted for the commemorative re-enactment of The Battle of Waterloo in June. You must supply your own uniform and weapons. If you can rustle up a horse, preferably a grey, you can join Ponsonby’s famous game-changing charge. Get a medical cert from your proctologist, in the interests of health and safety. If you are already dead, that’s not a problem as there were about 24,000 dead bodies on the field by evening time. If you are not going to Brussels, you can still play a part, as 15,000 troops were reported missing. Have a boiled egg before you set out for the battle, but be careful how you open it. Break a leg!


Don’t forget Agincourt  (1415) just down the road. By the way, we missed Alexander’s centenary by four years…’he can play a bugle call/like you never heard before/so natural that you want to go to war./It am the bestest band that am’ (Irving Berlin 1911) Say no more.

Iluntasuna. 9/11. The Twin Towers.

Sometimes things happen that burn themselves indelibly onto the memory.  We remember clearly where we were at the time and what exactly we were doing. We put down whatever we have in our hands. We stop in our tracks. We are struck dumb. Words are inadequate. We are sharply reminded of our own insignificance and vulnerability. Our perception of the world is changed forever. Most of these events are small, private happenings, bringing personal grief or happiness. The great public events affect thousands or even millions of people, shifting the ground under our feet, in either a real or a metaphorical way. We all remember what we were doing when we heard that President Kennedy had been shot.

We can vividly imagine the terror of the people of Pompeii, from the pathetic plaster casts of those suffocated by the eruption of the volcano. They were going about their daily business, conversing, laughing or grumbling, sitting at their work or drawing together to share a meal. They were taken in an instant.  The seismic waves from Krakatoa were felt in The Pool of London.  The sun was darkened. The explosion of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, still haunt our consciousness. “I am become Death, Destroyer of Worlds.” (Oppenheimer.) Is it any wonder that catastrophists and doomsayers dominate popular culture?  There is a market for dystopia. Special effects create endless versions of Armageddon to frighten the lives out of us and make us apprehensive for the future and for our childrens’ and grandchildrens’ futures. Apprehension breeds extremism and thereby violence.

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The first time I saw a jet plane, I felt fear. I was wheeling my baby brother in a pram, at the top of Toker Hill. (He maintains that it is Tochar Hill. He has grown up. He corrects me.) Nobody uses a pram nowadays, except vegetable vendors in street markets. A pram could contain several siblings and all the family groceries. The handle was very cold, for children old enough to walk, but compelled to hold on. I let go of my hold once and promptly got lost. That’s another primal fear.

On top of the hill I heard a terrible noise. Was it a bull, roaring as he charged towards us? Was it blasting in the quarry? It was definitely not a train or a lorry. It wasn’t a steam threshing machine, rumbling along a country road. The noise seemed to crack the sky. I saw a gleaming triangle, a delta wing, as I learned later. It was silver. I had no idea what it was. I feared for my little brother. There was nowhere to hide. It turned away from us and then banked, a graceful isosceles, darting away over the town and away,away, beyond Rockabill lighthouse. The noise crackled and reverberated behind it, long after it disappeared from sight. We are familiar with the old black and white films of refugees fleeing from strafing aircraft, along unprotected dykes and straggling roads. They push their children and their hopes of safety and a better life, in prams and handcarts. They walk in fear, looking up at the sky. Everyone is a legitimate target for blitzkrieg.

I saw two F.16 fighter jets last week, in almost the same place, a most unusual sight in Skerries. My son and I got out of the car to watch them. They circled a couple of times, displaying their weaponry. If they saw us at all, we were two insignificant specks far below, devoid of humanity or individual importance. We were conscious of the fact that a finger on a button could have evaporated us in an instant. They had come to perform a fly-past for a college football game in Croke Park. When we got home, the news on the radio reported Ukrainian jets hitting rebel positions around Mariupol. Fire from the sky was a reality for some people on that sunny Saturday afternoon.

On April 27th 1937, aircraft of Hitler’s Condor Legion, bombed the Basque town of Guernica. There was a horse fair taking place on that day. Picasso’s painting captures the terror, for those of us who were not there, or were not even born at the time. Today Americans remember all those who died in the Twin Towers and elsewhere on September the 11th 2001. You too remember where you were at that time and when you first saw those indelible images of twisted steel, amid towering clouds of smoke and dust. Our perception of the world changed on that day.

My daughter, Sarah, made this video. Take a few minutes to listen to it and to look at Picasso’s images as they change.

 ILUNTASUNA, in Euskara, the language of the Basque people, means DARKNESS.

The Guernica Oak Tree, in the middle of the town, is perpetuated from its own acorns. The current replacement sapling is being held elsewhere, until the soil is able to heal.

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

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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.