1953 1975 2006
“This’ll fix it” said the vicar, as he socked me on the jaw.
I had just been picked up out of the gutter and was more concerned about the state of my bike. This was Day One of my solo cycle journey from Dublin right up to Portstewart on the North Antrim coast. At the age of fourteen this was my first overseas adventure alone. A few moments before I had been happily cycling down the main street of Swords, just north of Dublin, when without warning a small van in front of me stopped suddenly, causing me to run into its back and injure my jaw. The driver must have heard the impact and accelerated away from the scene, leaving me and bike in the road. My face felt strange.
This was when the vicar came over and saw straightway what my problem was. He told me had been a medic in the British Army in the War and had fixed many dislocated jaws. Then without further warning he punched me hard on the side of my face. I was too surprised to be alarmed.
The story gets better from here. My face felt sore but back in shape. The twisted frame of my Raleigh All-Steel bike was repaired at a local garage and the vicar and his wife sent me on my way after an al fresco lunch under a huge fig tree in the vicarage garden.
Looking back, cycling round Ireland alone at fourteen sounds adventurous, but not in a world where teenagers nowadays sail single-handed around the world,
That day before in Dublin I had shaken hands with a dead man – quite an experience for a teenager, especially as the mummified corpse was claimed to be eight hundred years old. Dubbed “The Crusader” he resided in the crypt of St Michan’s Church. The guide said it brought good luck to shake his hand, which felt hard and leathery. Recently I read that twenty-six thousand people a year now visit The Crusader but the practice of hand shaking has long been abandoned. The corpse is now set back in his coffin with hands tucked in beside him. Not that that stopped a weird occurrence in February 2019 when , taking advantage of the non-existing security, someone stole The Crusader’s head. I don’t know how many people have enjoyed good luck from shaking his hand, but The Crusader clearly made his own luck when just a week later his head was recovered by the brilliant Garda and the culprit was arrested.
“Don’t spit. Spitting spreads consumption”. I still remember my surprise at seeing this sign on a Dublin bus. I had lived in a poor neighbourhood in London’s East End, but had seen nothing like the poverty and decay of much of Dublin, away from the elegant Georgian squares. It seemed that little had changed since the 1920s when my father had done an obstetrics course at Dublin’s Rotunda Hospital. He told me that when he was doing his midwifery practicals, he would take a new copy of a newspaper with him, as this was often the only clean material in the house in which to wrap the newborn.
Still, even Dublin’s poverty provided me an interesting experience: street urchins about five years old, pleading, “Give us a penny, misthur”. It was the first time anyone had called me “mister” and I recall giving away lots of pennies.
Some years later I read somewhere that Dublin Zoo (which I had visited) was so successful at breeding lions that they had even exported some to Africa. When I checked with the Zoo recently I was told that while they had been breeding lions since 1855, and sent many to wild life parks and circuses, there was no evidence any had been sent to Africa. Disappointed at this myth-busting I did a Google check and found a whole page of references that Dublin had indeed sent Lions to Africa – British and Irish Lions (Rugby Union team) had been sent to South Africa, many times.
Still it’s odd to think that those fierce lions that thrilled me at our annual circus visit in London as a child were not wild beasts brought direct from the African savannah but were most likely Dubliners from several generations back.
Of the eleven MGM lions, two were born in Dublin Zoo: Slats born 1919 (pictured above in 1924) and Leo born 1957.
In this year I made a business trip to Dublin, my first visit there for over twenty years, on behalf of the British multinational for which I then worked. I was not too keen to go. Ireland in the 1970s was wracked with sectarian violence and, while most of the bombing and killing were going on in Northern Ireland and back in England, Dublin was experiencing some of this terror as well.
Just before I set off I got a request from one of our subsidiaries, a firm making specialist commercial vehicles, to check out a proposal they had received from an Irish professor. Details were scanty but it appeared the prof had designed a special vehicle and wanted to know if we wanted to make it under licence.
So while in Dublin I visited University College, where Seamus Timoney was Professor of Mechanical Engineering.. We met in his workshop, where the professor pointed to a large vehicle painted in camouflage and proceeded to tell me about the unique, patented suspension system and showed me a piece of the unique plate steel with which the vehicle was clad. It was an armoured troop carrier! Timoney claimed it was superior to anything the British Army had.
Now this was the 1970s and British troops were driving around in similar vehicles in Belfast, just 170 km to the north. There is perhaps a time and a place for all good ideas but this was not one of them: A British company making armoured troop carriers for the British Army using Irish technology was unthinkable. The politics would be explosive , both for the British and Irish Governments.
Interestingly, a quarter of a century later Timoney Engineering licensed an Australian firm to make 350 Bushmaster Troop Carriers for the Australian Army
“All these Eastern Europeans working for lower wages and doing the Irish out of jobs,” said our taxi driver with venom as he drove us into Dublin from the airport. This was the response to my innocent enquiry as to what’s the latest news in Dublin. To me it was ironic as, growing up in London, I was old enough to remember that in my childhood “immigrants” were not black West Indians but white Irish.
Happily, Dublin was now booming with little trace of the poverty I had seen fifty years earlier. The streets were congested with new cars and tourists. Ireland was in the European Union and using the Euro. The country was European HQ to many multinational firms.
At our hotel we fronted the perennial problem facing overnight travellers (we had come in from Toronto). Our rooms were not yet available as it was only 9 a.m. The charming and sympathetic receptionist (Eastern European, I guessed) suggested we spend the morning on the Hop On, Hop Off bus. This we did but dozed through most of it, not getting off even at the Guinness Brewery. Twice round the circuit, once on the left of the bus and once on the right. We did alight at Merion Square with its elegant Georgian terraces surrounding a park.
……..and there in the park was Oscar Wilde reclining on a rock and wearing a vivid green jacket with pink lapels and stretching out his legs clad in blue-grey trousers. First impression was that Oscar was made of fibreglass but later we discovered he was made of various coloured rocks from Norway, Canada and Wicklow. Seeing a polychrome statue was a surprise. For thousands of years statues seem to have been uniformly grey granite or white marble. Back in Classical Grreek and Roman times statues were often painted, though those pigments have long since faded.
The Crusader was not the only Dublin resident who lost and found his head. In 2010 Oscar’s porcelain head had to be removed because cracks were forming. .It was replaced with a new one of jadeite.
However, it was not Oscar Wilde or Eastern Europeans which left the most lasting impression of that Dublin visit. It was, late one afternoon, seeing two diminutive female Garda walking towards a couple of large, drunken louts who had just discarded their empty tinnies in the gutter. The policewomen sternly ordered them to pick up their litter and place it in a nearby bin. It was reassuring seeing these big lads meekly obey – a good tale of respect for the law and for the environment all rolled in one.
First female Garda 1959 – perhaps the grannies of the two we saw.
A challenge: what is the most memorable city you’ve visited?
This could be the beginning of a series.