Monday, March 9, 2009

You have to remember I was a member of the F C A, ( secret service division )

Yes, It is true, I used to love being out on the range near Athlone with the FCA, hefting our heavy Lee Enfield, Mark 111, 3o3 rifles down to the firing line, 300 yards, being issued with the coveted rounds, shiny brass cylinders, topped with so-sharp too-pretty bullets, waiting your turn to shoot. Then, you are up, safety on, loading the rounds into the z-sprung magazine, unlocking and locking the bolt onto the first round, safety off, lying prone as the officer barks out the command, 'Gasrai, gasrai, aire, at your targets in front, in your own, time, 5 rounds, rapid fire.'

I have 2 trophies for winning western division gunnery competitions, from a long way back, but the memory, is just like yesterday....that gun, my gun, the worn stock, polished mahogany nestled against your jaw and mouth, your nose smelling traces of trench-smells in exotic killing grounds like the Somme and Ypres, waiting for the mist to clear, peering over the parapet through the raised sights, sensing the wind, easing the trigger back at the end of an expelled breath, the accurate tight grouping on the dim silouhette target, second pressure, BANG!

Jeez, you'd be deaf as a post afterwards and the bruise on your clavicle, and the weight of the thing, the physicality, the smell of cordite in your nostrils and the metallic taste in your mouth, and the piercing hammer-bells in your ears, and then, afterwards, the ritual comfort of pouring 8 pints of boiling water through the barrell. 'Same amount of boiling water as blood in your body, Private', wondering how they did that in 1917 in a filthy trench with no electric kettle and afterwards, the oiled pull-through string and wad, stowed in your tunic pocket, like a scapular!

And then the feed, in Kinsellas Hotel, awkward in our uniforms, snake-guard high boots, laced to the top, air eagla na h-eagla agus na peist, the never ending laces drooping like anacondas below our football socks, hardly camoflage colours but stopped the chaffing, our appetites too young to join Eamon and Tom in topping up the bill with Guinness. Imagine looking forward to sharing two weeks in a tent full of over-sexed cadets, amid the sand-dunes at Finner, just so we could fire the Gustav Machine, the Bren Gun and the Energa Grenade. 17 year old Boys playing WW1 soldiers, with real 1918 rifles and real bullets in Ireland in the 1970's.

Y'know....watching all the bang bang movies, you know that the action is fake...there is no way that anyone can function with the bells ringing in your ears and the recoil...then one day we had to cover the Butts...resetting the targets and pasting the holes over them...real rounds buffeting the sand-hill over your heads...the ping and poof...and the absolute knowlege that you would never hear the offending shot were you the target...just the carnage...puts those 2 unfortunate British soldiers and the Polish Pizza delivery men in Antrim in stark perspective...something our kids sadly lack with the TV and movies de-personalising violence.

Curlews call

We celebrated (if thats the right word) my sister Sheila's first anniversary on Sunday last, January 18, 2009, in Sligo, and Joe her husband did us, and Sheila proud. There was a fair scattering, if that's the right term, of her diverse friends there, indeed they came from all over and we all enjoyed the occasion, albeit that it had to be sad to be real, and despite the levity and the conviviality, it was indeed sad. The melting snow glistened down Ben Bulben's face reflecting our tears as we paid our respects to Sheila at the quiet hillside cemetary in Rosses Point, with only the calling of the curlews and seabirds in the long grass of the dunes and rythmic dunta of the atlantic waves on her favourite beach as accompanyment to our soft prayers. The crispness of the air made the fresh, blooming flowers all the more poignant on her grave. Sheila, our rose, is gone but never forgotten, especially with family and friends remembering her constantly as they do, visiting with her year round in her little spot overlooking the Rosses and Sligo Bay.

Co-incidentally, just last Friday, on a similarly frosty morning, I found a dead Curlew on my doorstep in Barna. I opened the front door and there it was, on my doorstep, cold and stiff, yet dignified and proud, noble I suppose. It surprised me, the arbitrary oddness of finding it there in the first place, not on the grass, not on the driveway, on my doorstep. Not just the stark finality, but also the beauty of this very private bird, that I'd often heard, glimpsed, though never actually seen, the long curved beak and the extraordinary rich, though muted, understated, ordinary-looking brown plumage, and the realisation of the mystery of the bird, dead now, no longer the living spirit of the bog and hills round my house, overlooking Galway bay and the Burren, gone, but not gone, still living, replaced by another curlew, and then another, as nature continues the cycle of life.

And later, having buried the dead bird in the bog behind my house, I thought of Sheila and of her own love of nature, her understanding of it, her derived wisdom, her faith and her spirit, now at peace on the little isthmus of Rosses Point, nestled between Ben Bulben and Knocknarea, her haven of mystery and spirituality, and now eternity, punctuated by the plaintive cry of the curlew from the dunes.

Yeats, no stranger to Rosses Point, wrote 'O Curlew cry no more in the air, or only to the waters in the West...', but that is too sad, so instead, I thought I would share this beautiful and reassuring piece from the American poet, Robert Frost. Frost was so in touch with nature, the cycles and the nuances of it and he wrote this beautiful piece about his wife, after she had died, and how her voice was now part of the symphony of birdsong, in that he subscribed to the the theory that birds are believed to absorb some subleties of what they hear and incorporate a minute part of that into their own vocabulary, or repertoire. I like to think of Sheila's spirit being incorporated in our own wild birds' song or in the beauty of the bog cotton, or the movement of the winds that blows constantly on the western shores of Ireland, for I sense her here, on occasions, unbidden, welcomed always.

Never Again Would Bird's Song Be the Same

He would declare and could himself believe
That the birds there in all the garden round
From having heard the daylong voice of Eve
Had added to their own an oversound,
Her tone of meaning but without the words.
Admittedly an eloquence so soft
Could only have had an influence on birds
When call or laughter carried it aloft.
Be that as may be, she was in their song.
Moreover her voice upon their voices crossed
Had now persisted in the woods so long
That probably it never would be lost.
Never again would birds' song be the same.
And to do that to birds was why she came.

Robert Frost

Apropos, given the day that was in it... and then the next day watching Obama's inauguration as 44th President it is perhaps a timely coincidence...Frost was 86 when he spoke and performed a reading of his poetry at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy on January 20th, 1961. He died 2 years later on January 29th, 1963.

Fortuna Favours the Brave

A little story from the west of Ireland to chase the recession blues away!
My brother Paul's dog, (or rather bitch), Fortuna just won the Oaks at the National Coursing Finals in Clonmel last Wednesday (February 4, 2009). Paul shares ownership of Fortuna with Brigid Frank and Donie Reidy, two great friends of our family, and yes, you've guessed it, they are all three stark raving mad into Greyhounds.

In keeping with her name, (taken from the Roman Goddess of Luck, who is usually represented by a beggar-woman), Fortuna was an out-and-out rank outsider. She wasn't rated at all, weighing in as she did at only 65lbs, (tiny for a coursing greyhound). For good luck, the unassuming trio backed Fortuna on the opening day, Monday, with a tenner each way @ 100/1, with the bookies, (you do the math). They backed her, just so she wouldn't feel unloved!!...and that was only the icing on the cake.

They had bred Fortuna themselves in Loughrea, using my late dad's old kennels and from a pup she was reared out in Dalystown yard, just as was Dad's uber-dog, Knockash Rover. (He won the Derby in Clonmel in 1981). A great tradition continued and now our family and our town have been blessed to have captured both Classics, albeit in nearly 70 years of trying. I think Dad would have been pleased, as indeed would our late uncle Michael Bourke from Kilrush, who passed away at this same meeting, just 2 years ago, a coursing man to his boots.

A whole coach-load of Loughrea Coursing fans made the trip down to Clonmel to support Fortuna and their cheers, when she raised the final flag, could probably have been heard all the way back in Loughrea. Another Loughrea dog owned by the Mahonys was beaten in the Derby quarter final, so the travelling support had plenty to cheer for. They all travelled back in convoy and finally arrived home very late last night, having celebrated earlier in Hotel Minella in Clonmel and in Stapletons in Borrisoleigh.

A bar-full of coursing supporters had been waiting all night for them in Connollys pub and many there were crying with the emotion of the win when Brigid finally raised the winners jacket. It was quite an occasion, very moving. Happy Days. Something at least to chase away the gloom and doom for a moment!

Take a minute to read this beautifully written article by Diarmuid O'Flynn and share the moment. (My thanks to The Examiner, who always give great coverage to Coursing).