Friday, March 31, 2006

Peaks and Valleys on the food front all of a sudden

Our chef -- God be good to him -- has been on an upward quality curve these past few months. The meals we've been getting in the Local Government canteen are improved ten-fold over what used to be proffered. I think the new management changes there have brought the standard right up. Although in some areas there is always room for improvement.

Because of various problems with the cooker at home, I tend to have a brunch at work now around mid-morning. This means that I have been paying closer attention to the food on offer than I might otherwise. The scones, for example, come in at least two varieties. One is your plain, slightly soda-ish type and the other has some cherries through it. They also appear to have grown to the size of half a loaf, as if a bit too much yeast was added. The difficulty in eating them is the same as in trying to get one's mouth around a squash ball. The effect is the same. I have personally caused at least three fellow employees to have to take evasive action as pieces of cherry scone have richocheted off the ceiling and pinged, rattling, into the light fittings.

"Sorry! Cherry scone!"

They nod in understanding.

The heating apparatus used to keep this confectionary warm consists of a catering pan over a water boiler. This does the task, but sets the outer layer of the ball of dough into a concretion that defies the sharpest teeth. I nearly put my eye out tapping a butter knife off the surface experiementally only yesterday.

Dinnertime is when our catering people shine, however. Wonderfully expressive concoctions from bacon and cabbage for our country-born colleagues to exotic Mexican dishes which come with a verbal health warning to every customer are followed by traditional bread-and-butter puddings, or crumbles, or custards.

Everything was fine with this until Barbara sat down at our table yesterday with a giant panini which had been assembled by a team of architects rather than served.

"You'll never fit that into your mouth."

"You'd be surprised," she said, yanking at serviettes and wrapping it up in swaddling clothes. Her progress was hindered when the whole thing fell assunder and she discovered a large hole in the panini bread that spilled the contents onto the plate and table top.

Just as we were marvelling that so many swear words were known to such an otherwise serene young lady, our reveries were interrupted by an Environmental Health Officer leaping backwards from his plate at the next table.

"What the HELL is that...!!!???" he shouted, peering over the back of his chair.

"I think it's called 'Brie'..."

He poked it suspiciously with the tip of his fork. It looked like it had been hiding inside the grated carrots in the salad for some dangerous purpose. Ambush, possibly.

"I think it's off," he said, sticking it closer to his nose.

We passed the object about the table on a side-platter. I declined the scratch 'n' sniff experiment.

When I left them, they were thinking about teapots. Tsk, tsk!

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Exposition of the Blessed Irish Breakfast

Originally posted on the Dublin South-West Forum

Ah! The cup of tay...!

My father recently forwarded a supply of teabags to us which, somewhat strangely, made putrid tea. It was bitter stuff, and the strangeness of it was that it was from a reputable tea blender. I can only guess that he came by an old supply at cheap rates someplace. This morning I had the pleasure of *two* mugs of Barry's tea.

Barry's is owned by the family of Peter Barry (born August 10, 1928) a retired Irish Fine Gael politician and businessman.

My mother and father went through the war years (known in Ireland as "The Emergency", but to everyone else as World War II), when tea was rationed to half an ounce per person per week. Considering that "loose tea" (as distinct from the modern bagged stuff, which although I drink it for convenience sake is still to my mind inferior) was generally sold by the quarter pound, this was a poor amount indeed to have to try to survive upon. Tea being so scarce, my father has tales of his Aunt Maggie serving tea all week from the same batch of leaves, which doesn't bear thinking about too closely.

We got our tea-drinking habits from copying the English who started drinking it in the 1650s. It was so expensive that early tea caddies came with locks and keys which only the mistress of the house carried. Antique teapots and teacups are therefore tiny, like dolls-house teasets. Great profits were eventually made from tea imports, but as time wore on it stopped being such an unreachable luxury and spread out from the upper crust in England through their houses in Ireland to become a staple of the Irish diet as it remains today.

In our house, the tea caddy was almost never empty and held mostly Lyons Green Label or Mauve Label tea leaves. We also drank PG Tips. A souvenir tea scoop, with the Isle of Mann coat of arms on its handle, was what was used to measure. One scoop per person, and one for the pot was the law. Of course, the pot must first be warmed with scalding water. The tea would not brew properly if dumped unceremoniously into a cold pot! And the length of time the brew was allowed to do its work was also important, as was a proper knitted cosy to cover the pot.

At work, we have a well-appointed canteen, which, until recently, suffered from bad tea. It had those large tea boiling urns that, no matter what end of the day one visited, consistently brewed "mouse trotting" tea. (Tea so strong that you could trot a mouse across its surface.) They lately changed tack and supplied us with miniature teapots, each accompanied by a single teabag. Now, if the strength of the tea is not to one's taste, the blame can't be placed on the canteen staff. It's still a teabag though. Not "real tea" as my mother would have liked it.

An American visitor in the 1990s complained that he couldn't get a decent cup of coffee in Dublin. Back then we invariably used the condensed granular stuff (We've since heard of coffee beans, btw).

As I pointed out, you could always get a decent cup of tea. My American friend was not impressed.

"Tay" by the way, is the original pronunciation of the brew. It's survival in Hiberno English proves our long history of tea-drinking. In fact, the use of "Tay" instead of "Tea" was at one time a social stigma, at a time when all things English were considered superior, and anything of Irish origin considered inferior. I read some place that Jonathan Swift, on visiting a Dublin high society soiree in the 1700s at which the ladies were doing everything possible to avoid the "Tay"-like accent and sound more "dignified", encountered someone who asked him if he had enjoyed his visit to the "Bee of Neeples."

She should have stuck to the cup of tay.

Of course the cup of tay is fine on its own, but it's at its best as a follow up to "The Full Irish", which is to say a proper fried breakfast.

Opinions differ as to what the full Irish actually is these days. With influences from foreign travel and the influx of visitors from near and far oddments have been added and subtracted. If you go into a cafe in the city, the full Irish is likely to consist of friend pork sausages, fried or scrambled egg, and maybe some black and white pudding. Extras include buttered toast or fried bread. Baked beans may also feature.

I don't think of beans as a breakfast food and I think they've crept onto the menu from truck stops in the U.K., where long-distance lorry drivers combined breakfast, lunch, and tea in one meal. Beans are more an evening meal for me and I can't do them justice in the morning.

Pork sausages come in so many guises these days as well, that it's difficult to buy the "perfect" breakfast. Hafners are my sausage of choice in the breakfast department, but they're not stocked by the local supermarkets any more. (They used to be available back in the days of H. Williams supermarket, long since departed from Tallaght Village). I'm sure a butcher or two must still sell them.

These days the shop-bought sausages of "Everyday" brand, fill the gap in the frying pan. I'm not so fond of the "Denny" varieties, unless very well cooked they tend to have a softer filling.

Puddings are again a matter of individual taste. The black rings of puddings made by Walshes and filled with white veins of suet are the favourite in my book. You can keep yer aul dry Clonakiltys as far as I'm concerned. Likewise the white puds, which should be browned and accompanied by the shrivelled skins they came in.

Last but not least is the fried egg, which has so many ways to go wrong it's amazing that it stays on the menu at all these days. To give evolution its due, I've stopped frying my foods in the traditional lards (or cooking fats, if they're of slightly different origin). I now use vegetable oils. The egg tends to fry reasonably well in these, and I'm a soft yoke man myself. Not that I send back an egg that has a slightly hardened yoke. Burst the yoke, though, and half the breakfast ritual of dipping toast, fried bread, or bread and butter in it is sadly lost.

I hope your croissants tasted nice this morning. I'm off for a real breakfast.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Tale of the Tap-dancing blackbird

I don't know if I mentioned it already, but there's a new inhabitant of the back garden this year. A cock blackbird has decided that those boughs of red berries over next door's shed are his and all the worms found in our lawn.

This has naturally caused an upset, because the resident blackbird, although not necessarily interested in these potential food sources up to now, is not impressed with the presence of a newcomer on his patch.

The two engage in a kind of psychological warfare. The new guy sits at the top of the ash tree and sings out his repetoire with gusto. The oldster perches on an even taller conifer at the end of the road and whistles his happy tune right on back at the new boy.

They met last week half way. Obviously neither was planning to budge and the cold-war propaganda broadcasts weren't working, so a more direct approach was needed. This isn't too spectacular among such flighty birds. One cock flew onto a neighbour's roof and stuck his tail aloft. The other did the same. Then they immediately took fright at each other and headed back to safety in their own territories. Presumably something may have been settled at that point, but I didn't notice any particular changes in either bird's behaviour. If anything, the younger bird appears to have gained a temporary advantage, despite his less sophisticated singing, because when the weather turned snowy he drove off both cock and hen from his patch and reasserted his ownership over the berried branches.

Our cats, meanwhile, have not let the competition go unnoticed. The younger bird quite deliberately lands in the garden and sticks his tail up at them. In fact, as he struts and stops to listen for the movement of the worms on which he likes to dine, he has a very bold body language which seems to be confusing the cats enormously. I can see him in top hats and tails tap, tap, tappity-tapping about and confounding the cats' best efforts to catch him. I think the psychology he's using here is definitely working, because they've simply decided not to try to stalk him any more. Instead they make a show of looking extremely interested, provided there are at least two layers of glazing between them and this atypical bird. Birdies, in their experience, are stupid squeaky things, that are easily caught and make pleasant noises when slowly tortured. This one doesn't play by the rules. Anything might happen to a cat who got too close.

I hope this one attracts a mate this year. It would be good to see more cocky blackbirds strutting their street-wise stuff in the neighbourhood.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Hit the water already swimming and everything will be alright

Brig is washing the floor today.

"You're okay," she says as the mop wends its way closer to all this computer equipment resting on the bare boards. "You don't have to move."

I give her a sideways look and say:

"I feel like I should start making swimming motions. Like when you go to lower the dog into a bath?"

We laugh at the mental picture. Each of us has owned various styles and temperaments of dogs down the years and they all invariably started swimming in mid-air as they were being lowered into the bath water. Front paws doing the crawl, tail twisting about to act as a rudder. It ain't called the "Doggy Paddle" fer nuttin'.

I've promised today to tend to the cat litter trays as soon as it rains.

"What do you mean, 'As soon as it rains'?"

"It's obvious, really. With rain forecast, I could jump to the chore like Superman and it would piss out of the heavens. If I leave it an hour, it will stay dry until I go outside and then piss out of the heavens."

I notice the sound of big fat raindrops falling on our black bags of recyclable beer cans as Brig takes a cigarette break on the back doorstep. Point proven.

On the positive, I've put off sweeping out the shed that our two semi-outdoor cats call home for the past few weeks and there is a definite surplus of discarded cat biscuits and cast-off fur on the Axminster carpet floor that needs attention. So I'll do that chore today as well.

Yes, our cats have a fully furnished home of their own.

We bought it a year and a half ago, to make up for the loss of their indoor lifestyle. Being young and inexperienced in the ways of we monkies, they thought it quite natural to climb up curtains and widdle in plant pots. Our raggedy old furniture made for perfect scratching posts.

With a house loan under our belts and some major remodelling and decoration, including new furniture and carpets, there was no way these moggies were going to carry on as before. So I forked out for a smallish garden shed, and insulated it with off-cuts from our new carpets, with the result that these two have a pussy-cat paradise in which to preen themselves. It has carpeted floors, walls and ceiling. It has a shelf installed so they can take turns sunning themselves at the window. I even put a miniature pussycat door (not a cat flap) in the bottom, so that I wouldn't have to leave the usual shed door propped open during the day and maybe cool down their boudoir.

The fact that there is a weights training bench in there has nothing to do with the cats. I just needed somewhere to put it after it went out of fashion in another part of the house. I don't think the tomcat pumps iron over the long nights lying awake in his cell block. He might though. He is getting very big.

I shall ponder this as I shovel shit.

Virtual houses disappear like fever dreams

I had a virtual house once. It was a website I tinkered with as an alternative version of my original Home Page. The visitor was met with images instead of text and invited to explore the various rooms of a "house" into which I had placed installations of visual, aural and text messages and prose pieces.

The first page of the site invited the visitor to switch on the computer's speakers and showed a picture of a clock with several "ticking" marquees that said "If you can hear the ticking of the clock you are ready to enter". A WAV file played a continuous ticking-clock sound in the background.

On entering, the visitor was met by a breeze-block house with doors and windows. Beside it stood an animated black kid with a ghetto blaster and, if I remember rightly, at least one penguin swaying to the beat of the music that blasted out. You were left to your own imagination as to what to do next.

If you clicked on the front door, you "entered" the dark hallway, which was made up of white line drawing on black. The stairs were to the left, with another interior door straight ahead and a couple of framed pieces hanging on the walls. Each major item linked to a minor piece of writing or some poetic prose. In each case you could Exit and return to the hallway, or Exit entirely and revisit the house exterior.

You might also choose to enter the house via a window (people do, after all). One entry point led to the bathroom, via the sound of smashing glass and a collage of virtual bathroomware including a dripping tap that I just should have tried to fix some time...

I had planned to include secret doorways and (naturally) to make the interior of the house much bigger than the outer dimensions suggested.

One of the installations was a piece about a childhood fever. I remember the delerium and the pounding of the fever through my veins and the page was set up to mirror this with a continual background of unwholesome-looking red bubbles and a repeating chorus from my childhood fevered mind going through the text of:

"HR Puffinstuff
Who's your friend
When things get tough?"

Italics emphasised different parts of the chorus as the fever, accompanied by a WAV file heartbeat, carried on down through the piece.

There were other rooms in the unfinished house, including one that mentioned a bus-ride on the number 47 and the then smoking-area upstairs.

The whole lot was left to stew while I went on to other online projects. In the end, the Webspace service provider went kablooey, followed by my hard drive, and the whole lot was lost. I've tried looking for cached versions of the pages in Google without success. There is a minute chance I have some pieces on some ancient floppy disks someplace, but I don't hold out much hope for finding them.

I might begin to rebuild that house of fun again some day. If so, I hope you'll make a visit behind its strange doors.

Friday, March 24, 2006

The Indecipherable Lyrics Round

We used to watch the television quiz show, Never Mind the Buzzcocks, quite a lot and we still tune in from time to time. The format is that of an anarchic pop music quiz, hosted by Marc Lamaar, and one of the rounds I used to particularly enjoy (alas now dispensed with) was the "Indecipherable Lyrics" round. In this, the contestants were played a clip from a music video in which the singer or singers were particularly muddy, to say the least, in the pronunciation department. They would first of all say what the lyrics sounded like to them, which was invariably hilarious, as they then sang the comedy lyrics over the soundtrack, then in order to get the points in the quiz they would try to recite the actual lyrics.

I was pleased to find a Website entitled "" some time ago. It had the same "what I thought they said" and "what they actually said" format. The ACDC song, "Dirty Deeds done dirt cheap" sounds exactly like "Dirty Deeds done with sheep" once that thought has been planted in your mind. Our family has someone who really thought Jimi Hendrix was singing "Excuse me while I kiss this guy" and another one who thought the T-Rex song, "Metal Guru" went "Minnie the Loop, is it you?". Lately, listening to Bon Jovi's song, "It's my life", it wasn't until I heard the song on headphones that the line "Like Frankie said, I did it my way" wasn't being sung by yours truly as "Like Frankenstein, I did it my way."

I really wish they'd bring that round back into the show.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Lost Property and Finding it

First Published on the Dublin-South West Forum

I remember when I was in my late teens and the victim of a continual thirst I boarded the 54 bus for town and raced the bus conductor to a wad of banknotes lying in the middle of the upstairs aisle. I figured the powers that be had put some drinking money my way. The bus conductor thought the same as I handed him a share of the notes.

At least he did until I said:"I don't suppose they're yours to begin with?"He looked aghast and started patting pockets. He seemed satisfied that his float was intact. Finally he rolled me a ticket and went on his way.Neither of us gave a thought to who might have lost the cash.

Once while walking through Firhouse late at night I found a small black faux leather purse which contained one moped key and a £20 note. My conscience about the earlier incident must have pricked, because I handed the whole thing into the Garda station in Tallaght the next day and thought no more about it.

A statutory year and a day later I received a postcard to say it had been transferred in the interim to the Lost Property office in Kevin Street (I think) station. As non-one had claimed it, it was mine. Otherwise, it would go to charity. I suppose it must have done so, because I wasn't bothered to go look for it then.

The other evening one of our household lost his wallet, much to his chagrin as it contained a student pass and a bus ticket as well as the remainder of a week's money. After pulling the house apart he went for his bus and the driver, who knew him from coming and going, said "There you are", passed him the missing wallet. It had been handed up, liberated of its cash contents somewhere along the line. He was glad to get it even so.

This afternoon on another Tallaght bus I had just sat down when the man in front spied a brown leather wallet stuck down the edge of the seat. Someone had put in in their pocket, only it wasn't the pocket it had lodged in. I wondered what he'd do.

He was elderly, so I thought a little social experiment would prove the honesty of the older generation. I sat impassively a seat behind as he riffled through the contents. He nonchalantly put the wallet in his pocket.

You could almost *see* his conscience working. As the bus wound its way from The Square he came to a decision. (What was my experiement going to prove?) He reached into his pocket, pulled out maybe three €20 notes (I was watching in the reflection of the window) and folded them neatly into his coat. Then he approached the driver like a good citizen and handed up the lost property.

When the bus stopped outside the Technical College in Tallaght he obviously was struck again because he suddenly jumped up from his seat. Not to hand over the money though: he got off instead at the Village Green stop and the last I saw of him he was almost at the bookies. Maybe he was on his way to put a few bets on some horses -- his luck was in, after all -- or he could have walked on and gone into Molloys pub to do what I did with my luck: pour it down a drain.

Human nature, do you think?

Mammy always told me to check my pockets before putting clothes in the wash

First published on the Dublin South-West Forum

My mobile phone had two voicemail messages last night, so I looked to see who they might be from and my old pal Ronan came up on the missed calls list.

I connected to the message minder and heard a long, protracted "message", obviously the result of an accidental phone call. The television news was the only distinct and recognisable part, newsreader Eileen Dunne expounding on the state of the world in the background, while brief snatches of Ronan, his wife and at least one child in conversation spun in and out of the crackling background noise.

Then near the end, a light began to dawn... The crackling interference had a particular rhythm... It went

Whirrr... Whirrr... Whirrr... Whirrr.... clunk
Whirrr... Whirrr... Whirrr... Whirrr.... clunk

Now I'd like to believe that Ronan's phone was on the washing machine, but I have a terrible feeling it was actually in the washing machine....

Oh dear.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Tallaght's St Patrick's Day Parade 2006

The over-riding sensation of the 2006 Saint Patrick’s Day Parade in Tallaght was, unfortunately, the cold weather. Even today, more than 24 hours after I got home from the Village, I am only just beginning to warm up again. However, it did nothing to discourage cheerful participation in the parade and while the number of spectators might have been lessened, some thousands of local people turned out to line the route.

Organised this time by a committee headed by Roderick Smyth, the parade had been absent from the town’s streets for the past two years and a special appeal was made for businesses and local groups to join the 2006 event.

Beginning at the National Basketball arena around 3.30pm, the parade featured members of the Dublin City Fire Brigade, the Civil Defence, and several local community, sporting groups and businesses. The event was presided over by Grand Marshal, Des Garry, also known as the Tallaght Person of the Year 2006, as well as South Dublin County Deputy Mayor, Karen Warren. Other local dignitaries invited to view the event included T.D. Charlie O’Connor, Senator Brian Hayes, and representatives of the Garda Siochána.

In blustering sleet showers, and accompanied by blaring sirens of the Dublin Fire Brigade, the vanguard of the parade entered Tallaght Village around 3.45pm to the cheers of around 3,000 onlookers who lined the streets from the Greenhills Road junction to the gates of the Institute of Technology.

First of the sporting groups to process through the Village were members of the Belgard Athletic club, dressed in football gear and oversized festive leprechaun hats and carrying a banner in their blue and white colours. They were followed closely by representatives of the Glenview Day Care Centre, accompanied by the centre’s minibus, the original of which was burned out by thieves in the summer of 2005, but which was replaced by a charitable donation by local business, Control Aer, in December of that year. Several clients of the Centre, which caters for elderly citizens of the area, were aboard waving cheerily at the gathered spectators.

Paddy Dracula Finlay put in an appearance, causing much mirth on the reviewing stand as he gave Karen Warren’s neck a professional inspection. He was scared away by the sirens of the Dublin Fire Brigade, whose convoy of vehicles carrying fire crew and waving children included several types of tenders, rescue and emergency response vehicles. Members of the Civil Defence were followed by the impressive Goldwing Club, bedecked in green white and orange, and riding the powerful motorcycles after which the club is named.

Master of ceremonies, Roderick Smyth, battled bravely against the elements to deliver a running commentary on the various entrants but was hampered by an inadequate sound system, the gusting wind and the sheer number of onlookers straining to hear.

The first display of the day came from the young participants of Old Bawn Gymnastics. Dressed smartly in light blue and dark blue tracksuits, they set up apparatus and mats and gave an admirable demonstration of leaping and somersaulting on Main Street. The cars of Tallaght Ford and the old Saint Patrick himself preceded St Aengus Youth Club, from Balrothery, who took an environmental theme of the “Three Ts”, namely: “Bin there, Dun that, Clean Tallaght”.

Irish dance was represented by Scoil Rince Ní Aogain and by the Mona Bolton School of Irish Dancing, respectively. The girls and boys danced in worsening conditions and despite the biting cold displayed their skills with great determination and courage, especially the young girls who were dressed in intricately-decorated Irish dancing costumes which offered no apparent protection against the chill.

Local Radio Station, Tallaght 99FM, was broadcast over the shaky amplifier system for a time and the parade also featured vehicles from the Q102 and the 98FM commercial Dublin radio stations. The 98FM “Thunderbus” mobile studio passed through and was a very impressive sight.

The Saint Aengus Environment Group headed a convoy of road-sweeping vehicles from McCarthy Sweeper Hire Ltd bedecked with bunting and inflatable leprechauns.

The only marching band of the day, the Tallaght Youth Band, the Marching Vikings, gave a very confident, if brief performance at the reviewing stand. The band was founded in 1977 by Fr. Len Perrem, assisted by Paddy McNally and was originally known as the Priory Youth Band. It was accompanied at the 2006 parade by a section of its flag wavers and majorettes and had just returned from performing in the London St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

Hard on the heels of the band came a group bearing the banner of “Integration of African Children in Ireland” who, dressed in traditional African costume, sang in front of the spectators and reviewing stand. They were followed by a contingent from the Shamrock Rovers 2006 club. Behind these were members of St. Mark’s Taekwon-Do School. The older adult members gave a display of martial arts exercises and demonstrated the ability to break wooden boards with their bare hands and feet.

Butchers from the Meat Factory outlet passed by and handed out leaflets, followed by Securazone Security. The crowd was also impressed by the Absolute Limos vehicles, which, despite being only two in number, seemed to go on forever!

Members of the Dublin Auxiliary Fire Service unrolled hoses from their fire engine and startled members of the crowd who thought they were in for a wetting. In the event, the darkening skies were now beginning to thin the spectators as the last groups in the parade made their way up Main Street.

Just before the final participants from a new leisure and fitness center brought up the rear of the parade, the only true float of the day appeared under the banner of “Transformation Tallaght”. Its message read: “What was St Patrick’s Message?”

And on that fitting note, the Tallaght parade concluded for 2006.

In my opinion, a great success, the parade none-the-less suffered from the appalling weather conditions, but this did not appear to lessen the enthusiasm of local people for a parade of their own. Hopefully, problems with the sound system, though a minor inconvenience in such conditions, might be eradicated by next year. It might also be a good idea for some street entertainers to occupy the hundreds of bored children and young teens that congregated as delays, inevitable on such occasions, set in near the advertised start time. A few sweeties to keep everyone’s spirits up would also be welcome.

I noticed on the way to the Tallaght parade that groups of participants from the Dublin event were making their way home in costume from buses and coaches to the outer estates. Maybe next time it might be possible to persuade these groups to consider entering their local parade as well as the National.

The shorter parade route doubtless helped to make the event more enjoyable for all concerned and probably saved some of the participants from hypothermia. It also concentrated the number of spectators, especially in Tallaght Village, the natural home of the Tallaght parade.

A very big congratulations to the organizing committee and a heartfelt thank you to everyone who braved the day and participated in the parade, making it a true community event. Let’s hope the success will spur more people to take a renewed interest in 2007.

Did I mention it was cold?

Willie Walsh
Dublin South-West Forum
18th March 2006

Dublin Fire Brigade
Dublin South-West Forum
St Marks Tae-Kwon-Do
Tallaght 99 FM
Tallaght Youth Band, The Marching Vikings
Integration of African Children in Ireland (site under construction)
Photos from the Tallaght St Patrick’s Day Parade

Friday, March 17, 2006

Diddly-Idle-Oh! Now the tune is in my head again for the day!

Seachtain na Gaeilige has been in full swing this week and has been observed in its usual colour (green) at work by Management. A forest of green balloons hovered over every meal in the canteen until one by one they slowly disappeared. Whether the irritated patrons helped them on the way to derigible Heaven by a judicial poke of a greasy fork or not is unknown. Whatever erradicated them did so slowly, over the course of the week, until we were back to our familiar tea-stained table-tops.

There was an additional incentive to the "Irish table", in that any employees who sat there this week were entitled to a free lunch. The conversation was in Hiberno-English as I passed by a group of diners enjoying Irish Stew yesterday, so maybe it wasn't as successful in encouraging the cúpla focail as intended.

What was most notable, perhaps by the sheer persistence, was the presense of a traditional Irish music ensemble parked strategically outside the canteen doors in the public concourse for the whole week. Every time the doors swung inwards on their automatic hinges, a blast of "The Recruiting Sergeant" came in, and invariably the tune got stuck inside my head.

As I was walking down the road,
A feeling fine and larky oh!
A recruiting Sergeant came up to me,
Says he "You'd look fine in khaki, oh!
For the King he is in need of men,
Come read this proclamation oh!
A life in Flanders for you then,
Would be a fine vacation now."

By the end of the week, the repetoire had been depleted and tunes from Monday and Tuesday were coming around again, including "The Recruiting Sergeant."

A kind of musical terrorism engulfed our hard-earned lunchtimes. The cruelest part was the sudden unexpected inrush of music into the meal. One would be sitting gazing at one's Tempura and wondering how to spell it, when a quick "Diddley-Idle-Oh!" would run in, flash a few outrageous bits of itself, then nip back out before the door slammed shut. By the time one's head was raised in fright, the whole experience was done. On the next mouthful, the doors would open again and some green-coloured tune would amble in, bow smartly and exit stage left again. My nerves can't stand such things for long.

Yesterday, when the cashier kindly flung a packet of complimentary shamrock onto my serving tray, I snapped.

"Tiocfaidh ár la-la-diddley-idle-oh-begorrah-the-whole-world-is-in-a-state-of-chassis!" I screamed and scattered the pile of miniature chrome teapots across the floor.

"That will be €5.70 for the dinner" was the impassive reply.

I paid and left quietly.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Online Motor Tax beats the Tallaght to Hollyhead bus. But only just.

I was the bigger fool, because every year around Christmas I would get on the bloody 75 bus and rattle along the roads to Nutgrove to get the Motor Tax renewal disc.

"Why not drive?" I hear you say. Because on the one hand, the beloved was using the car (or more to the point, it was parked outside her workplace and would be used after she was finished working to get home again), and on the other hand I neglected to learn how to drive so I wouldn't be put upon to go on errands like this one...

No bother getting there. Not much trouble handing the paperwork over and paying for the disc. And no trouble bumbling about the shops of Nutgrove Shopping Centre, maybe even finishing off a bit of Christmas shopping while I was there. The problem invariably arose when I decided to go home. The 75 bus seemed only to go one way. No matter how long one waited, usually with an inappropriately large gift like a giant picture frame, or a candleabra, with the rain and sleet blowing up Nutgrove Avenue, the bloody thing never came back!

I decided that far from ending its journey at Dun Laoghaire, the double-decker must have trundled on along the crumbling pier and taken the plunge into the cold water to travel the murky seabed until it reached Hollyhead. Dublin Bus was obviously muscling in on the Irish Sea ferries business at my expense.

One year it occured to me to get six months worth of tax instead of twelve. This would make the disc expire in, say, June rather than December. Why didn't I think of it before!? No more shivering at bus-stops, or trudging along through puddles into Rathfarnham Village in a vain search for civilization, the while discovering the dubious pleasures of the inevitable hole in the sole of one's boot.

So I took the bus in the sweltering heat of June, baked inside the Motor Tax Office and fell, dripping, out of the Shopping Centre. I parched at the bus-stop waiting in vain for the returning 75, before finally hiking up to Templeogue under the scorching sun before limping onto a Tallaght bus and, whimpering pitifully, crawled in the front door to sit steaming beneath a cold shower jet.

Last year we took a different tack, making sure the Motor Tax ran out at the end of March. Now March is a fairly predictable if changeable month. One day can be warmish, the next a fair blizzard. But at least it's possible to predict the weather a bit. I even went so far as to change Motor Tax Offices and got a lift to Clondalkin instead of Nutgrove with my father. We spent an hour exploring the Mill Centre with its various shops (quite like Nutgrove, as it happens), before wrestling with the one-way traffic system and the other irate motorists in the village.

I was pleased when tonight the Renewal Notice was waiting for us on our arrival home from work. On it was information about the online renewal process, a PIN number, and a URL on which to log in. Perfect!

I logged on and answered "Yes" to the first few questions. Then it asked me the big one. "What is the name of your Insurance Broker?"

Oh bugger.

I went out with a lump of paper and a pen in the rain and noted the details from the Insurance Disc on the windscreen. The wind shrieked down the roadway and leaves sped by my head. Large drips fell down the back of my neck from our leaky gutter.

Why me?

I'm informed that the Motor Tax Disc will arrive in the post in about four working days time. That's slightly shorter than the return journey of the 75 bus in my experience. Let's just hope the whole thing is over for another year, eh?

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Tick, Tock, Biological Clock

The Website of the St Maelruains Parish in Tallaght, whose church and bell-tower are often used as a symbol for the area, is one of those in which I am involved as Webmaster. The information is supplied to me in the Parish magazine, a monthly newsletter called "The Losset" (visit the site to find out why), and transcribed by yours truly into a monthly site update.

It was while updating the site this week that I added an item to their Noticeboard page stating that the clocks go forward an hour on the weekend of the 25th-26th March. This is astonishing, because my own internal clock has only just got over the clocks going back an hour! In fact, I'm dismayed, because I never seem to adjust to the Summer time change. I think the proto-Walsh was only happy in his winter cave and didn't care for summer too much. He probably growled irritably at the other cavemen when they suggested games of pass the mastodon and rolled over beneath his skins. I know that growl. I use it during summer time.

The saving grace, no matter how zombie-like I emerge in the mornings, is the wonderful stretch in the evenings and the fact that I can come home from the 9-5 job and spend an hour or two in the garden, looking at the antics of two cats and listening to the birds. In fact, I'm looking forward to it this year, so the weather had better be good. In 2005, I was just getting the hang of it, sitting out the back covered in frost near the end of October, when we went back to what my body thinks of as "normal time." At least I've a couple of weeks left to keep the internal clock ticking in its proper time. Bugger summer time anyway.

Sunday, Sunday

I think this is the first Sunday in which I got out of bed later than around 9.30am in I don't know how long. I know it probably goes against the grain among we non-church goers to clamber out from under the covers earlier than noon on the day of rest, but the week-long habit of waking at six and several other times between that and eight is a hard one for me to break. What happens is I start treating the day in my half-awake mind like a work-day, begin planning, categorising, prioritising and plain old worrying until I just have to get up and walk around and close off the parts of my mind that a psychologist will doubtless say are desperately trying to draw attention to themselves. I've also acquired a lower back ache which asserts itself if I stay in bed too long. So up I get.

This weekend was different. We had planned to go to town and listen to some Blues, but in the event found a few reasons not to go. Weather was one of them. Waiting at a wet bus-stop is seldom fun, especially when it's wind-blown rain. So we stayed home and watched television and drank beer. Even that was a hard course for me to follow this week. I had had enough by 11.00pm and went off to bed.

Work has been long and while not altogther difficult it has been very intense this past week. I think my mind is finding it a bit difficult to adjust to the change in pace my all-but-official promotion to a new clerical grade has brought on. I've been encouraged by favourable comments by workmates who have complimented my ability to deal with customers. The word "efficient" has come up more than once, which is a welcome boost to the self-confidence.

Unfortunately the same efficiency doesn't apply to my home office, which, following some pointed remarks and the judicial slamming of some cupboard doors by my beloved searching for bank envelopes among the sprawling mess, finally received a hasty tidy-up half an hour ago.

I'm supposed to be completing a 2004 tax return which the Revenue Commissioners reminded me of in a firm but uncompromising letter on Friday. The resulting mess of paperwork is causing no end of irritation in some quarters, not least because it is obviously accompanied by complete inactivity today on the tax return front. Instead I've been adding lists of Takeaways to the DSW Forum and catching up on online gossip. In any case, I've found that the memos and receipts I need to calculate the self-employment income for the 2004 year are in diaries at my father's house and anything else that might have helped has been lost in the easy-as computer failure after Christmas. Fine excuses for inactivity are the hallmark of writers everywhere!

Here is Herself back from the shop. Wonder if there's a teabag featuring anywhere in my immediate future?

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Sweets, groceries, soft-drinks, interrogations...

Mrs Elliot's shop in Edmondstown, just below the Reckitt's factory, was the local sweet shop for we kids for many years. It had a wider variety of confectionary than my uncle's pitch 'n'putt clubhouse, although Elliot's was further away. For a while it was a fair distance on foot, then the local gang acquired bicycles and it wasn't such a hardship to take a spin down there.

The shop, which was on the upper floor of a split-level house in a deep cutting by the roadside, had a decent shop window in which penny sweets, lollypops, and jars of other goodies were displayed. The narrow doorway opened into a dark hall, one deep step down, which had a counter and display to the left and a small window, curtained on the other side, which must have looked out from a room in the house. A simple bell push on the wall immediately ahead of the visitor by a door that led into the living quarters summoned Mrs Elliot if she was not already behind the counter.

I like bags of "Indian popcorn", which was just a regular variety covered in a sweet, syrupy, coloured food dye, and they cost 2p each. I also liked ice-cream, which Mrs Elliot sold by the individual pre-wrapped factory produced lolly, or cut herself from a block and served between two wafers. You could buy a 2p wafer or a 5p wafer, the difference being the thickness of the slice of ice-cream. My favourite, though, was the HB (hughes Brothers had a creamery and factory in the Rathfarnham area until very recently) "Golly" bar, which was a type of vanilla ice cream wrapped in a foil wrapper with lots of smiling gollywogs on it. I don't expect my Golly bar is sold any more in this politically correct age.

Mrs Elliot mostly catered for the nearby factory, and so cigarettes and a few grocery items were also stocked. She would sometimes make up a sandwich for Miss Eagan, if the teacher had forgotten to make lunch for herself that morning. I was sometimes deputised to walk down to Elliot's and ask her to make one up. It wasn't part of the service, but Mrs Elliot usually obliged.

I'm told she also sold individual tomatoes and single cigarettes to our miserly landlords. It wouldn't surprise me.

One thing that you could always rely upon was Mrs Elliot's appetite for gossip. Whether you were buying penny sweets or fetching a few groceries for teatime she would appear in her blond, curled hair and pinny and ask:

"How is your mother? Is she still working in the factory?"

I'd answer politely (as I'd been taught) and ask for another item from the list.

"How is your married sister? Where is she living?"

My mother used to ask me at the other end of the journey what Mrs Elliot had been saying.

"Ask her if her son is still living in the caravan!" she'd spit out, putting away the groceries. Mrs Elliot's son lived in a mobile home on a site near the house.

Interrogations aside, I used to enjoy that little shop. Sad to say, it changed hands some years back, and although it remained open for a while, I think the downgrading and eventual closure of the nearby Reckitts factory probably removed much of its profitability. The shop has been discontinued and the doorway blocked up. There is little trace of Elliot's shop now, just a blank wall of a house with its back turned to the passing traffic.

Interestingly, they are building apartments all along the roadway north of where the shop once was. I reckon it would make some money as a small grocery again if it was ever re-opened. There'd be no Mrs Elliot, though. She must have gone to her reward a long time ago.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

The jury out on Crufts for another year

We watch this doggie show on TV every year, probably because from a situation where our formative years featured canines quite largely, our somewhat later years include no doggies at all. The substitute is about a million bewildering breeds of all shapes and sizes in the BBC's highlights programme from the UK's biggest dog show.

Tonight I was pleased to have reaffirmed again that for all the breeding and preening dogs are still just dogs. The presenter (who owns a black Labrador of his own) was flanked by a Westfalian Champion Wooly-Haired Whifflehound on one side and on the other sat a common or garden Welsh Border Worrier. The Whiffle, being the better bred of the pair, was, at about 200 pounds in weight, trying to climb into its proud owner's jacket pocket, because the Worrier was looking at it!

The presenter went on about the various prizes and made his links quite well, as the Whifflehound, a winner in its class, continued to try to escape the sniffing snout of the black and white patty snatcher. At one stage, the Worrier even blinked in the general direction of our champion.

There was a real "I can take him" vibe from the slightly built (but perfectly formed) Worrier. It surely was too much to bear! All that the Westy wanted was the warmth of the sofa and a rub behind the ears as its owner watched Corrie.

Each year we enjoy the spectacle of worthy winners looking bemusedly from behind well-draped ringlets, or fancy runners-up wafting along on castor-like paws across the carpeted arena. And every single one of them, under all the powder and paint (yes, we know all the tricks now) is just a bum-sniffing, leg-cocking, car chasing mutt at the back of it all.

Wouldn't it be great to have a supercharged exterior and still get to pee against trees? Maybe that's a bad example... I can cock a leg with the best of them. But still. To get a grand prize of a golden ribbon and have someone rub your belly by the fire as you eat crunchy treats... Again, a bad example....

Crufts continues on the BBC until Sunday night.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

When crapping rings about me later, doubtless I'll regret it

I arrived home this evening to find a bowl of grapes in the kitchen. Even in March, we're still finding packets and boxes of Christmas goodies and sharing them out, so something nice and edible is nothing new here. Fruit, however, is a rarity. And I like grapes. Even if they don't like me.

I went out to feed the cats and popped a grape into my mouth in passing.

"Mmmm...! Nice."

The cats eyed me with that expression only they can have, which means:

"What is the f**king monkey saying now? Doesn't he know we are commanding him to serve us meat? Quit stalling, Monkey! We are not amused."

On the way back in, I stole another grape.

And while switching on the oven, there was an excuse to pass by and purloin another. And when pulling down the shades, another. And plugging in the computer, another. And switching on the sitting room light another. And coming back in to put my password into Windows, another. And checking the oven, another. And coming back in to write something for the Blog, another.

I think I'll have to start using the double-doors to the living room rather than pass them by again. My constitution is not up to healthy living, and I shall have to suffer the grapes of wrath in a few hours when my body finds out I'm not swallowing my accustomed lard.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Some of those gift horses are right mouthy

Our workplace likes to observe corporate niceties in regard to staff welfare, and staff education, and staff entertainment. I suppose it's an attempt to off-set the staff depression, staff alcohol intake and staff whimpering in corners that happens.

Today I met a colleague who had been on an earlier tea-break to me. I thought she must have popped out to the Square, because she was carrying a small, brown-paper bag with a logo of some kind and was smiling excitedly.

"No, I didn't go out" she said. "I got this for free in the canteen."

"What's in it?" I asked, poking one eye over the rim in case this freebie might be slightly dangerous. We enumerated the goodies, which were all foodstuffs, apart from some printed bumph which we immediately disregarded. Happy with her prize, she went back to work.

Hot-footing it downstairs our little group made sure to reach the freebie table in good time to rootle about the goodiebags. There was fruit...

"I want a banana," my pal said petuantly, peering into the neatly ordered rows of brown paper. She fished out a bag containing a banana and joined the queue to buy tea. I looked into my bag, which contained a fruit scone, an orange, a strawberry yoghurt, and various pieces of plastic cutlery. And a small pat of butter wrapped in paper.

"How is it I always get yoghurt with nuts in it?"

"Oh shut up! You can have my strawberry one instead."

Around us was the louder than usual buzz of office staff in conversation over their cups of tea and coffee and heads bobbing among forests of brown-paper bags placed in protective custody about the tables. Obviously word had filtered through to the upper offices that something free was afoot in the canteen this morning.

The engineers had lined up theirs in neat rows with the handles standing to attention. We lowly clerks plonked the goodiebags in haphazard confusion among the cups and saucers and ducked around them in conversation.

There was an instruction booklet on how to eat the contents. At least I presume that's what it was. In keeping with all members of the public everywhere, I deigned to read whatever had been provided for me. On the outside of the bag was something about healthy eating and the Irish Dairy Board.

"It's all a gimmick," declared Billy Fitz, sitting down at the table and resolutely buttering a croissant. He would not be eating from a free bag of food today.

"Never refuse a gift of money or food," I said. "Or a bath."

They looked at me.

"You forget, I came from a house without any plumbing."

At dinner hour I had a piece of Southern Fried chicken, mashed potatoes with broccoli and turnip. I forgot all about the healthy eating message. I did remember to bring the bag home though. I mean it was free, after all.

Think I might attempt the fruit scone, even though I'm full.

Healthy eating, how are you!

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Rainshower (for Brig)

First published in Ireland of the Welcomes, Jul/Aug 1993
The hush was broken only by the lowing of the cattle as mist rolled by the hedge-row gap and rushed the cobwebbed grasses in the lower pasture. Here in the sheltered corner the moist air caressed the cottage, hidden from the road and nestled in a hollow of the land. It stroked the slate roof, probing for gaps beneath the lichens as drops gathered nearby to plot an earthward course, starting, slowing, pausing to join and rejoin until a single trickle guttered to the barrel by the lime-washed gable-end. Sweet turf-smoke, pale in the soft light, followed the mist across the hollow -- swirling, twining, floating down and through the low-cut hedge, dissipating in the open in one brief gust.

A tiny rivulet began near the front door, fed by water on the windowpanes that leaked down onto the sill, then to the worn path beneath where the grey stones spattered and darkened. It wormed its way between, standing in small, rippled puddles where the surface dipped a little, then spilled onwards, downhill to the wrought-iron gate and rutted lane, where purple-flowered clover soaked it up.

The clouds descended, brimming with light and life. Broiling, twisting, tumbling through the lowering skies, they funnelled clockwise past the garden gate, stepped out across the rooftop and the lip of the hollow, then filtered through spreading branches of a lone sycamore, they dipped towards a young stream. Yellowed, greyed, marble-flecked, stones and shingles splashed and gurgled the stream along, unseen and secretive, into some other distance.

The earth it ran through breathed slow and deep, silently inhaling pure silken air. Laden with the gentle weight of atmosphere, the luscious grasses of the bank turned slowly downwards, bowing to the nourishing soil. Birds, nesting, crouched low and were quiet. The whitethorn's barbs were jewelled with glassy beads that fell from spike to spike in little sudden showers, shaken by the freshening breeze. A brisk breeze. A drying breeze.

Cloud flurries passed by the hedgerow-gap, breaking and separating, scudding low in the pasture. The trickling waters sputtered on into the barrel, then slowing, turned to scattered drops and ceased.

The slate roof dried. Light broadened as sky-shadows crossed the fields, greens, browns, and yellows flickering into view, then spreading out in steady concentration while clouds grew fewer and sunlight filled the day. Vapours vanished, shimmering skywards. Flowers in the laneway unfolded and spread. In the tree, a bird, ruffled, wet, hopped twice along a branch, cocked head to listen, chirped. In the hollow, an answering call, another, and the day was filled with song. Cows crossed the freshened stream to grazing. Doors opened, voices carried, silence broken as the rain passed down the valley and away.

If your goldfish was incontinent, how would you know?

Our subject title today comes from a quote in one of my 40th-birthday pressies, a book of Irish wit compiled by Des McHale. No disrespect to the book, but it is resting in the place I reserve for all books lately, on the window ledge in the bathroom, within arms reach of the toilet bowl. This seems to be the only location where I get to do any reading these days.

It's a pity, because there never seem to be enough hours in the day to do all the things I want to do. Not that I am given to vast outpourings of creativity any more, but I have many items on the agenda I should like to pursue, like one day finishing the renovations to the kitchen, or completing the Dungeons & Dragons game module I'm writing for the magazine in America, or planting in the garden, maybe even painting the gate. They all need doing, but by the time I arrive home at 6.00pm ("The hardship of it all!" my commuting colleagues cry in outrage as they read this after a half day of sitting in immovable traffic), feed the cats and cook a meal, the only thing I'm fit for is the toilet bowl, its reading material, and an evening in front of the telly.

At least that's what I tell myself. I tend not to think of my friends who do all that, raise children, build houses, go to gyms, threatres, restaurants and the rest. In the end, I suppose it's just a matter of work life balance. Of pacing oneself.

Now there's a thing: my workplace observes the annual "Work Life Balance Day", on the 1st March. I was reading an advert for it last week on our internal Intranet. Among other activities, a life coach would be in giving four 35-minute lectures on how to figure out your own goals.

I think my first own goal was in getting the job I'm currently in, but I don't think that's the point of the lectures...

My personal work life balance is completely out of whack. It happened because I started off working from home, so this meant that I had the opportunity to louse around at home for hours doing no work, then interspersing the quiet times with furious amounts of effort. There was no deliniation between what was "work" and what was "life". They bled into each other.

Maybe if I had gone through the route of school/college/work/life like so many of my schoolmates, I would have got a handle on this a long time ago. Or am I over-simplifying?

I see people around me in work who are raising kids and keeping on top of college well after the traditional college years. They are doing exams and studying for certificates and diplomas while their own "kids" are now travelling in foreign countries before settling down into lives of their own.

I don't know. Maybe I have a difficulty with setting goals or something. I just don't seem to have a handle on where all this is bringing me.

That's the problem, then, I think. I'm being brought along instead of steering my own course. Ain't this mid-life crisis stuff just grand?

On the positive side, my "untraditional" approach to life means that I have had a freedom to find out more about other aspects of life and about myself than perhaps other people of my age-group might have had time to do. I don't have a mortgage (though I do have a five-figure personal loan) to pay back. I was briefly a mildly famous writer in an infamous genre, albeit to a specialist readership. I received fan mail. I had time to feck around on the Internet and to discover the workings of computers. I taught at least three people how to read and write. I encouraged perhaps 40 others in how to perservere in the same goal. I learned how to speak in front of people, and how to tell stories that might keep people interested or amused.

My mother taught me compassion from an early age, but it wasn't until she was dying that she really taught me about life and about how we are responsible for one another. She also taught me about the importance of self and of the necessity of self-preservation.

If I had taken a traditional path through life, I should never have met Brig and joined her and her family. I wouldn't have palled around with John, or made the best man's speech after his wedding to Ludmilla. I'd probably not have a tribe of cats training me every day to do their bidding.

And, of course, the dreaded nine-to-five has to feature in there. I don't think I would have been as effective in interacting with work colleagues, the friends I have made at work, or even with customers without the crazy former life I've led. "You don't have to be mad to work here. But it helps" probably rings truer than I would have thought possible.

So where does that leave me? I don't know. Perhaps, to paraphrase my father, simply "I'm not a bad lad."

That's a fairly decent conclusion to reach, after all. Right?

Oh and the "Work Life Balance" activities completely passed me by again this year. Yes, you guessed it. I was too busy working to attend.

Thursday, March 02, 2006


First published in Ireland of the Welcomes, Jan/Feb 1997.
Grey-brown clouds darkened the horizon, bringing with them a threatening wave of chill air. Highland sheep huddled behind walls; in deep, damp hollows; by lone thorns, ancestral genes warning them of imminent snow. In the valley, old men sniffed and looked skywards, cracked stubborn joints, muttered against age, and turning away went back to their fires. The air dried, and slightly warmed. A hush followed, then, silently, the first large flake fell, one here, two there, another elsewhere; on the top of a robin's favourite fence-post; on the crooked nose of last-year's scarecrow; onto the clamp of turf beside the gable; on the scarce remains of fruit in the orchard; on the cover of the holy well; in the ruts of the country lane; on stones in the brown-running stream; until sky and earth were sugar-frosted, blurred together into rice-papery, marshmallow, whipped-creamy white.

Still it fell, softly, gently, layer upon layer of wefting, weaving crystals, tiny fingers lacing together, strands forming, floating, falling to rest in anything that held them, arching delicately across miniature grass-blade gaps, plucking at spiderwebs in passing, downing the world as if it were a new-hatched nestling chick whose mother, Springtime, will soon return.

Beneath the trees, islands formed, snowflakes in the lee of old sycamore, rising up from bramble skirts. Whiteness spread around corners, under fences, under the bridge, as the calm, sedate shower began to stiffen into flurries. Flakes then stippled over roof-slates, tripped against walls, careered across the open fields. Crystals shaped and reshaped into new forms, powdery, speed driven, stinging snow.

The wind rose, moaning around the orchard and the valley cottages. Knife sharp and icy, it stabbed the fallow land and fields, sliced by the pond, banked back. It probed nooks and crannies, leaving behind it whiter calling cards that stacked up, neglected, like so much unwanted post, began to drift across the laneways, clambered up sides of telegraph poles, obscured roadway signs, cast sinister traps over drains, clad the quiet country in loneliness, desertion.

Night fell quickly, stars appearing as the snow clouds swirled away on other errands. The wool-like blanket hiding seeds and slumbering things alike began to freeze into many forms: ramps, plateaus, planes and angles; knives, scythes, and spear shapes; undulating sea-shore sands when tide turns; piped icing; crochet-knitted yarns and feathered fans. The moon rose, casting strange shadows over all, a weird fluorescent quality emerging beneath. Animals nosed from secret burrows to creep cautiously about thin crusts, leaving tell-tale signs of paw and claw. They crisscrossed fields, trails of four-legged creatures, rabbit, badger, fox, small ghosts in a ghostly whiteness, a landscape of fitful dreams.

When the sun rose, the tracks were joined by others, three-toed, hopping, crows and smaller birds, looking for food in the hard, hidden ground. Fires dampened for the night were fanned into life, breakfasts made, and children wrapped up snugly for the day. Soon the sounds of humankind filtered across the silent world of sunlit, shining snow, screams of delight or protest, snowballs, sleds and snowmen, boots crunching, kicking, sliding. Winter's stage was set once more, dressed and decorated, oblivious to we players, the world slowly turning to the endless beat of time.

On the Nightwatch

Talking about our unisex office reminded me of a time when I worked in a place as removed from gender balance as could be. I was a night watchman on a construction site for a couple of months in the Belgard area of Tallaght at a time when some tunnelers were blasting through the rock beneath the Belgard Road and driving a pipeline through. This was a development in the late 1980s, and I would turn up for work by bicycle at around 7.00pm and keep watch over the place until 7.00am.

Night watch work is nothing to be recommended. I would get up in the afternoon and watch Bosco while eating dinner, cycle to work, have lunch around 3.00am, then arrive home about 7.15am and eat breakfast before going to bed for the day. This went on Monday to Saturday, but on Sunday I got to do the "day-shift" of 7.00am to 7.00pm. This was for the convenience of the regular watchman, or yardman, or whatever they called him during the day. If anything, I learned quickly enough there was little or nothing in the construction company's approach that had anything to do with my comfort.

The hut was completely filthy and inhabited over the course of the day by the hardest men I have ever seen or am ever likely to see. These were two culchies from some God-forsaken place who looked like they'd grown out of the grey rock at the bottom of the tunnel. At night, as I was arriving for work, they set off dynamite to blast through another few metres. The dust settled overnight and the twosome spent the day shovelling out the spoil. They spent their working days kneeling in water, or lying in it, with short-handled square-headed shovels. They spoke a kind of English language, but I hadn't a notion what they were saying half the time. I suppose they must have been in their thirties when I met them, and they looked like they had toiled since they were boys. Their clothes stank of wet and mould, and they hung them up to "dry" overnight, washing the worst of the grime from their faces, necks and arms, or stripping off to the waist to scrub at the dust. Then they piled into two half-rotten cars and disappeared off to a pub or nearby digs grinning widely as they went.

I was left standing in the door of the Portacabin, the gate of the compound locked behind them. A diesel pump sucked out the water from the tunnel overnight. I kept it filled with fuel. I "patrolled" around the chainlink fence, looked over a couple of mechanical diggers, wondered what some of the tunneling equipment was, then retired to the hut to wait the long wait.

As dusk was falling, there was a gas cylinder on the rough plywood table. I learned how to tie and light a mantle lamp that fitted to it. This provided the light, the heat, and the carbon monoxide fumes for the rest of the night.

If nothing else, the lamp made one get up and move around the yard every few hours. If not, you had a tendency to nod off onto the table, and were in danger of poisoning from the fumes.

The hut was divided roughly into two by a wooden partition. Large pneumatic drills, drillbits, and other tools filled one end. There was a wide spillage of hydraulic fluid on the linoleum floor and encrusted dirt everywhere. I looked at the two ring gas cooking arrangement that rested at floor level. Out of pity, I scraped the week-old brown lard from the frying pan and boiled water in it until it came reasonably clean.

The compound through which the tunnel was being bored was owned by a company which leased Portacabins, and the boss would sometimes arrive in his big Mercedes car. A couple of lively fitters would sometimes visit to make ready the interior of a cabin nearby, and these were good company.

On Sundays, the field next to the compound was used as a sports ground, and I could watch a game of soccer.

The nights were terribly lonely, though, even with the radio-cassette machine I bought with my new-found wealth. I took to cleaning to pass the time, poured sand onto the hydraulic fluid and swept it up. The two tunnelers pronounced the work good.

The boss was the foreman, who lived in a rented house in Kingswood for the duration of the project. On payday, I would call in and he would be there in the unfurnished house writing in a big ledger and counting out rolls of hard cash.

One evening the one who looked after the yard on alternate shifts was waiting in his car, a sly grin on his face as I came in on the pushbike. The two cabin fitters wanted to know if I'd been there the whole time the night before. Did I see anyone about the site?

Naturally, I'd been there the whole time and no-one other than a few kids had been around.

It transpired that someone in the compound had acquired some scrap aluminium windowframes by way of an extra income. It also transpired that someone else decided to fit me up for being in on stealing them from their new owners. I never did like that smarmy yard man. I reckon it was him.

No matter. I wasn't asked to join them again when the tunnel inevitably went off into another area. I was paid off and given a cursory farewell a week or so later when the job in Belgard had come to an end. Such is life.

Gobshites are everywhere, but take my advice: don't do the nightwatch.