I am informed by a botanist friend, Howard Fox, that this is one of the first genetics science poems that he knows of:

Wrinkled or smooth was the question,

for Mendel the monk and his peas.

A man never knows what he doesn’t

‘till he sees what he sees when he sees.


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Bach and Betjeman raise €2,675 for refugees

 Critique by Berni Dwan.

On the evening of April 26th there was a frisson of expectation at the Quaker Meeting House in Monkstown as the growing crowd warranted extra chairs being brought in. The punters were gathering for a fund-raising event, organised by impresario, Hilary Semple, to assist refugees coming to Ireland. The imminent prospect of poetry and music would be at worst, pleasant and familiar, or at best, compelling and highly entertaining. The poetry was delivered by Patrick Semple and the music was performed by two former members of the RTE Concert Orchestra, Elizabeth Petcu on flute, and Mircea Petcu on violin.

Conversation during the interval conveyed, without a doubt, that the evening was proving to be compelling and highly entertaining. An introductory talk about the plight of refugees by Nigel Bell reminded us all why we were sitting in Monkstown Meeting House on a Wednesday evening. Informative and amusing introductions to the music and poetry by Elizabeth and Mircea Petcu, and Patrick Semple, set the scene for a marvellous evening’s entertainment.

Some people mess about with boats on rivers; some people mess about with bits of old engines and spare parts; it is obvious to the discerning listener that Patrick Semple has been messing about with works of literature for many years. The poetry programme was an interesting mix of old favourites and a few modern surprises. It is no mean feat to deliver such a mix of poetry in a convincing manner, conveying humour or sadness to order when required. Patrick Semple achieved this like an old trouper. Excerpts from The Merchant of Venice and Verses on the Death of Dr Swift, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Gray’s Elegy and Goldsmith’s Deserted Village were delivered with suitable pathos and not the slightest hint of maudlin sentimentality. Conversely, more contemporary and quirky offerings like Fleur Adcock’s The Video, Jenny Joseph’s Warning, Betjeman’s Sun and Fun and The Clothes Line by Paul Durcan, were performed in a mischievous style.

Patrick, Elizabeth and Mircea do a lot of collaborative thinking in preparation for these events. It is not easy to put together a programme of poetry and music that synchronises beautifully and charms an audience. Following The Merchant of Venice pieces with a descant recorder and violin drone version of Greensleeves made for an atmospheric opener, while lovers of the more Baroque style would have been delighted with Telemann’s Presto from Fantasy in G Minor charmingly performed on flute by Elizabeth Petcu, or ‘Badinerie’ from Suite in B minor by Bach, performed by both Elizabeth and Mircea on flute and violin. The lovely thing about watching Elizabeth and Mircea perform together is witnessing the pure emotional intelligence they inject into the music, and the infectious joy they gift to the audience.

I had a group of friends with me ranging in age from mid-twenties to early seventies. By the end of the evening they were all ‘smitten’. I can now confidently confirm that Mr Semple has an adoring fan club who will enthusiastically attend all fund-raisers at which he performs. Patrick also read one of his own fine poems, Albert. You can read it yourselves on http://patricksemple.ie/wp/?p=992.


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Wednesday 26th April 2017, 7.30 pm
In aid of refugees coming to Ireland

MUSIC    Flute: Elizabeth Petcu (Ex RTE Concert Orchestra)
                  Violin: Mircia Petcu (Ex RTE Concert Orchestra)

POETRY   Patrick Semple



Nigel Bell              INTRODUCTION The Refugees
Elizabeth Petcu   INTRODUCTION to the music for this evening.
Patrick Semple    INTRODUCTION to the poetry.

SHAKESPEARE (1564–1616) Merchant of Venice (Act I Scene I)
Merchant of Venice (Act 3 Scene I)
Sonnet XVIII

Greensleeves to a Ground         Anon              descant recorder and violin drone

JONATHAN SWIFT (1667–1745) Verses on the Death of Dr Swift (extracts)
THOMAS GRAY (1716-1771) Elegy in a Country Churchyard (extracts)

Balada                                               Porumbescu                        solo violin               

GOLDSMITH (1730-1774) The Deserted Village (extract)
JOHN KEATS (1795-1821) Ode to a Nightingale

 Presto from Fantasy in G Minor          Telemann                 solo flute

OSCAR WILDE (1854-1900) The Ballad of Reading Gaol (extracts)
HILAIRE BELLOC (1870–1953) Tarantella

Tarantella Napolitana                             Folk                            recorder and violin


ROBERT FROST (1874-1963) The Road not Taken
JOHN BETJEMAN (1906-1984) Sun and Fun

Some of These Days                     Brooks                      flute and violin

KAMU BRATHWAITE (1930 –     ) Naima
BRENDAN KENNELLY (1936 –     ) The Good
SEAMUS HEANEY (1939-2013) Blackberry-picking

Sicilienne                             Fauré                         arranged for flute and violin

PATRICK SEMPLE (1939 –     ) Albert
PAUL DURCAN (1944 –     ) The Clothes Line

The Emigrant’s Letter                  French                       Irish flute

FLEUR ADCOCK (1934 –    ) The Video
JENNY JOSEPH (1932 –     ) Warning

Badinerie`from Suite in B minor         Bach               flute and violin

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Today that voice fell silent
in the small farmhouse
where he brought his bride
some sixty years ago or more.

A son and daughter grown and gone,
ewes to lamb, a cow for the house
on the small hill farm,
the centre of his universe

that stretched no more than twenty miles
in all his ninety years.
The kitchen: table, chairs, a dresser,
where he sat beside the range

winter and summer in wellingtons,
regaling callers with stories of time past
when he ploughed his piece of arable with horses,
did all by hand; got by.

Left school at fourteen, with fitful attendance
at haying, lambing or other work to do.
Yet he spoke an unaffected language
of Old English and Irish idiom

in beautifully crafted sentences.
No record left but in the memory.
In time all will be lost
of his unselfconscious artistry with words.



For Paddy Finn

The first time my wife and I climbed Lugnaquilla
We made love on the summit.
We had to do something to celebrate,
And we hadn’t brought anything else with us.

Since Lugnaquilla is a public place,
This was technically an act of gross indecency,
But, as there was no one else there
It was entirely private.

If the local Guard had been present,
After he had recovered
He’d have had to arrest us.
Can you imagine the journey down the mountain,
Especially as the local Guard
Is over sixty and extremely unfit?

In court he would stand up and say;
‘Your honour, On Monday the 24th September 1990
At four thirty in the afternoon
On top of Lugnaquilla I observed…..’

The judge would stop him and say to the defendants:
‘How do you plead?’
We would say:  ‘Guilty your honour;’
He would then say:  ‘How old are you?’
We would reply: ‘65 and 66 respectively,’
He would then say:
‘I find you guilty on a technicality,
But on account of your age
I recommend a citation from the President’.



He looked up to the window of my bedroom,
he took out the ladder from my shed,
he climbed up to the outside of my window,
and ended up beside me in my bed.



The last Protestant Archbishop of Tuam
was a closet transvestite.
That is the last one ever,
since the Archbishopric was abolished
by some synod or other in the 19th century.
Not that he dressed in a cupboard,
but in the vestry of his private chapel,
which was nothing if not appropriate.

His wife missed things from time to time,
but blamed the servants.
So he kept his secret until late into his senility,
when one morning at early communion,
he arrived on the altar, as they say,
wearing a green ballgown, complete with bustle,
and sporting a fan.

Entirely unaware of the inappropriateness of his dress,
he proceeded to celebrate the Holy Mysteries
for his assembled staff, inside and out.
Before he passed the Lord’s Prayer
from the preparation of the Old Sarum Rite,
his butler dismissed the others and approached the Archbishop,
who said in anticipation:  ‘Thank you, Hynes;
I’ve just realised I’m incorrectly dressed.
Since this is the season of Pentecost
I should be wearing white.’



Old Judd lied.
Everyone knew he lied
but they loved his stories,
so no one said:
‘I don’t believe you, Judd,’
but nobody knew where
truth and fantasy met,
not even Judd.



An enclave of entrepreneurs,
Captains of industry,
Retired to sand and sea
From whence they emerged
Billions of years ago.

Had they known then
How it would all turn out,
They might well have
Gone back to the ocean,
And saved us all the trouble.

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The house was at the end of a long lime avenue. The trees were old and in places they still met overhead and made an arch. There were gaps where over the years trees had died which allowed a view of fine pasture-land, part of the former estate now divided, leaving six or eight acres of curtilage with the house.  The house itself was architecturally undistinguished.  It had come to its present form after years, nay centuries, of additions and alterations.   The whole façade, viewed from the lawn, was covered in well-trimmed ivy.  A small river flowed by on the right hand side and all around there was mature timber; beech, oak and one gigantic sitka spruce.

It is arguable that Kate was the most important resident of this house.  She was the cook. Rather, I should have said ‘the more important,’ as there were now only two: Kate and her widowed mistress.   Kate was in her sixties, five feet three or four, slight build with grey hair.  She wore a shapeless black dress and a white band, for all the world like a bandage, across the front of her hair above her forehead, and tied at the nape of her neck.  Years previously all her siblings had gone to America but Kate had failed the medical and was left behind.

When the estate was in full swing she cooked for the family and the farm workers, she held her own quietly amongst the banter of dinner-time in the servants hall.  In the evenings in her room she scratched out traditional tunes on her violin.  Every Sunday and holy day of obligation before breakfast, hail rain or snow, she walked the three miles to eight o’clock mass in the village.  Once a year she went for her annual two weeks summer holiday to Co. Limerick; where exactly and to whom, nobody knew.

After the land had been divided Kate stayed on, and when we were there for lunch, in the large dining room with its long table, its array of family silver on the sideboard and family portraits on the walls, before we left, we would go to the kitchen to thank Kate.  Through the back hall, past the gunroom along the back passage to the flag floored kitchen with scrub topped table in the middle of the floor where Kate, having heard footsteps approaching would always be doing something with her back to the door.   We would knock on the open door and say:

‘Kate we’ve come to thank you for a lovely lunch.’ Kate would not look directly at us nor speak apart from answering our questions:
‘How are you, Kate?’  ‘Well.’
‘Terrible weather we’re having.’  ‘Yes’
On leaving we would put out a hand to shake hands, and reluctantly she would offer her hand with thumb and fingers together, with no grip or movement.

On one occasion we stayed a few nights.  In the mornings Kate brought us tea, and hot water to wash.  At eight o’clock there would be a gentle knock on the bedroom door.  In would come Kate with a tea tray.  We would say:
‘Good-morning Kate,’ to which she would not reply. Looking straight ahead, studiously avoiding looking towards the bed, she would walk down one side of it, across the bottom, up the other side and deposit the tray on the bedside table beside my wife.  Then in a similar way she returned to the door.  Ten minutes later there was another knock.  It was Kate again, carrying a copper water jug of hot water which, again without a word and without looking in our direction, she left beside the basin on the washstand. Our:  ‘Thank you, Kate’ as she left elicited no response.

Kate was above all a loyal servant, to the point that when her mistress had a broken stay in her corset, she took one out of her own and sewed into that of her mistress. I often wondered, and would have given much to know, what went on in Kate’s head, but I will never know.  She pre-deceased her mistress, and although during her lifetime she may not have inherited the earth, if there is an afterlife I have a feeling that Kate will be at the top table.

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At boarding school, to relieve the tedium of our incarceration we greatly looked forward to exeat Sundays. These were two Sundays a month when we were free after morning chapel, until evening at eight o’clock. This was a boon to those who lived within easy reach of Dublin and were able to go home.  If boys from the country, as I was, were to avail of the freedom of an exeat Sunday their parents had to submit names and addresses of relations or friends near the city to whom they could go, or give permission for their son to go home with a friend.  Before leaving school the headmaster gave an exeat slip to each departing boy for his parent or host to sign to confirm that he had indeed been for the day where he said he would be.

One Sunday a boy, Ken, from Bray invited me out.   The day arrived and it was critical to catch the earlier bus to Bray to be in time for lunch.  We collected our exeat slips and ran for the gate and out onto Blackhall Place where we were just in time to catch a No 72 bus.  As we approached Bachelor’s Walk we positioned ourselves on the platform and before the bus stopped we jumped, and ran along the quay.   Ken leading, we ran across O’Connell Bridge, down Aston Quay and just in time for the single decker No 45 bus to Bray. When we arrived I was glad that we could walk, for it seemed to me that Ken with his lumbering run, ran everywhere.

Ken’s parents welcomed me warmly with appetising smells wafting from the kitchen and a familiar programme on the wireless. At the end of a fine Sunday lunch Ken beckoned me from the table and informed me that we were going to the pictures. I had never been to the pictures on a Sunday before, and it was certainly something that I wouldn’t mention in my next letter home.

Before we arrived at the cinema, I already felt guilty.  Suddenly Ken broke into a run; we were late for the film.  Having missed the opening, I sat consumed by guilt in the smoky cinema for the duration of the film, and emerged into the late Sunday afternoon to start running again.  This time to Bray Wanderers football ground where Ken decided that if we were quick we would see the end of the match without having to pay.   We arrived at the terrace and could see only the backs of the crowd.  We pushed our way to the front.  No sooner had we positioned ourselves with a good view of the pitch than the referee blew the full-time whistle.  To my great relief we walked home.

After tea, sitting at the fire Ken suddenly jumped up: ‘We’re late.’  He grabbed his bag, we said our good-byes and out the door.  Before we were fifty yards up the footpath Ken stopped: ‘The exeat slips.’  He ran back, and when he returned with the signed slips he kept running.  It soon became clear we weren’t going to make the bus.  To be late back to school after an exeat meant forfeiting the next one.   Ahead of us propped against the wall was a bike.  Ken grabbed it.

‘Get up.’  he shouted.   I jumped onto the crossbar and holding tight to the handlebar I kept my head down.  Ken pedalled as hard as he could.  As we turned onto the seafront I felt his laboured breathing behind me, and we could see at the far end of the promenade that the bus was still there. When we were about a hundred yards from it the bus began to move.  Ken, breathless, gasped: ‘Shout! Shout!’  I shouted and waved frantically.  The conductor saw us and stopped the bus. I got down, Ken dumped the bike and we jumped on.  From Aston Quay, we ran to the No 72 bus and from the No 72 we ran to the big schoolroom and arrived just in time for roll call.

With all the running, the guilt of going to the pictures on a Sunday and having been an accessory to the theft of a bicycle, I was determined not to, and never did, avail of an exeat Sunday with Ken again.

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I could not believe it. In the exam at end of my first term of studying the language, the master had set the questions in French. I do not believe that in class we had ever put more than a few sentences together and we hadn’t had any conversation.   Oh, I knew some vocabulary, I had learned off some irregular verbs, and here on the exam paper were the questions in French and I couldn’t read them.  As it transpired I wasn’t alone.  On my answer paper I drew a big Christmas tree and wrote under it ‘Bon Noel Monsieur,’ and when the results came out the master gave me six out of a hundred.

A boys’ boarding school in the early 1950’s was a tough enough place to be. With few exceptions, boys, as they became senior, adopted the principle: ‘since I had to endure its rigours myself, I’m going to impose the same regime on those who come after me.’ Old boys who had been there in earlier times had tough stories to tell. Having survived it they implied the place had become little more than a holiday camp.

The skill for new boys was to learn to observe the rules and customs in order to stay out of trouble, and part of this was to learn the idiosyncrasies of the various masters. They were a mixed bunch, but Mug somehow was different from the rest.

Mug was my friend the French master.  He was at the upper end of the masters’ seniority scale gauged in years of service in the school.  He was about 5ft six, square build, he had a fine head of grey hair, short and brushed back, and he had a grey tightly clipped moustache. He wore a striped blue grey suit with waistcoat, black leather shoes and above all he was neat and tidy.

He arrived into school in good time in the mornings in his Morris Minor.  He locked the car and, carrying his brief case, walked right round it on a little tour of inspection before making for the masters study, to don his gown for his day’s teaching.

Mug also taught English, and it seemed that his ambition was that boys should know by heart large chunks, if not all, of Gray’s Elegy. Learning poetry comes more easily to some people than others, but woe betide the boy who recited his allotted portion of Gray’s Elegy imperfectly. If a boy left long silences during his recitation, or stuttered and stammered, Mug would move slowly down the classroom until he was beside him.  At the next pause or stutter he would catch him by the short hairs of his sideburn and pull him up until he was standing on the seat, when Mug would finally let go.  He would then return to his desk at the front of the class, open his little detention notebook, look down the room and say: ‘Name, boy?’ He would record the punishment and pick on another scholar to recite.  Apart from Gray’s Elegy I learned only one other thing from Mug. He had an abhorrence of the word ‘got’ and warned us against ever using it any work we did for him.

In his schoolmasterly duties outside the classroom Mug was out of sync with his colleagues.  Masters were ‘on duty’ on a rota basis and over a term any master might be on duty on any day of the week.  That was except Mug, who was always on duty on Tuesdays.  In prep. we had to wear slippers and other masters, if they happened to notice a boy in shoes would send him to his locker to change. Mug, however, would work his way systematically around the room inspecting the feet of every boy, and if he discovered one unfortunate enough to be wearing shoes, the boy found himself next day in detention.

It was said that outside school Mug was a kindly and gentle person.  At one time he and Maggie his wife used to have boys from the country, who had nowhere to go on exeat Sundays, to lunch in their home.

With great respect to all the country’s fine teachers, perhaps it was, with the likes of Mug in mind, that the saying was coined : ‘Those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach,’ – and set exam questions that most of the class can’t read.

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A ripple of applause ran round the ground. The batsman tucked his bat under his arm, took off his gloves and walked towards the pavilion. What happened him? asked the spectator who had just arrived and missed the fall of the wicket.His friend replied: ‘The spinner at the far end got him middle and off with a googly that only barely turned.’

Now if you don’t know about cricket this is likely to be Double Dutch to you.  If you do, it communicates an interesting account of some of the finer points of the game. Neville Cardus, one of the all-time great commentators and writers on cricket was a music critic of equal stature. I know about cricket, but, unlike Cardus, I know almost nothing about music.

As a boy I learned the piano, but when I arrived in boarding school the music teacher was neurotic. He always wiped the door knob before opening the door. Before sitting down to play something himself to demonstrate how it should be done, he would take out his handkerchief and wipe the keyboard, and if he detected that you had even the hint of a cold he would conduct the lesson from the other end of the room. More importantly music lessons got in the way of games so I gave up.

As an adult I know the music I like but I don’t know much about it.  When I read a booklet accompanying a CD I usually can’t relate what I read to what I hear, and yet I enjoy the music.Some friends have season tickets for Friday nights at the National Concert Hall, and if they can’t go my wife and I sometimes use them.   As we wait in the foyer before going into the auditorium, I sometimes wonder if I’m the only philistine present.

On stage I’m always fascinated by the arrival of the principal performers.  As soon as the orchestra is seated the leader arrives, and before he or she has done anything they get a round of applause.  The leader is followed soon by the conductor who again, it seems to me, gets a round of applause on credit.I haven’t yet been to a performance in the National Concert Hall that I haven’t fallen asleep. This is not a commentary on the concerts performed there, because on one occasion in Chicago with the great Georg Solti conducting The Chicago Symphony orchestra, I fell asleep too.   At one symphony concert recently we were sitting in the front row and I almost jumped out of my seat when an unmerciful crash of drums woke me.  I looked around quickly; nobody had noticed.

When the music begins, unless I am fascinated by the contortions of a particularly athletic conductor, my mind soon wanders as I watch the motley crew of players.   To me very few of them look like professional musicians.  I find it impossible to know if a work has been well or poorly performed.  However, at the interval we almost always meet someone we know who says something like: ‘wasn’t that wonderful?’ They never say ‘good grief wasn’t that awful,’ or even, ‘a bit pedestrian don’t you think?’  To someone, the height of whose musical accomplishment is to play the tune ‘Clementine’ on the piano with one finger, I marvel and keep my counsel.

What really fascinates me is the performance at the end when the music is over.  The audience inevitably goes into a paroxysm of applause.   The conductor takes three or four bows and disappears out the door at the side, not to his dressing room, but to wait in the passage ready to come in again.  He shakes hands with the leader, who has obviously done something of merit of which I have been entirely unaware and then signals to the orchestra to take a bow when many of them look mildly embarrassed.

The last item one night was Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring.’  I found it tuneless, discordant and unpleasant.   It didn’t surprise me, as the programme told us, that the first performance in Paris in 1913 created a famous riot, when blows were exchanged, the orchestra was drowned out and the performance ended in chaos. The audience in the Concert Hall gave it a rapturous reception.  I was fearful that one man at the front of the balcony standing up and clapping frantically would fall over. I bet he didn’t know the first thing about cricket.

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They all play golf.
All my friends play golf.
The whole world, it seems, plays golf.

I met a man at a funeral
who started to tell me,
shot by shot,
hole by hole,
a round he had played that morning.

At the third hole
I stopped him.
‘Do you honestly expect me to stand here,’
I said, ‘and listen to you telling me,
shot by shot,
hole, by hole,
a round of golf
you played this morning,
and this poor man
stone dead in his coffin,
his widow distraught,
and his family not knowing
which end of them is up?

At a party
a friend of mine
bored the wits out of my wife
explaining to her in detail
how after thirty years
of a perfect swing,
it had gone off;
like milk in hot weather.
He was back with the ‘pro’
to have his swing corrected.

Have they no imagination?
Have they no idea
how talking golf
bores the wits out of

How would they like it
if a stamp collector
cornered them in
a one way conversation
about how he tracked down
a penny black,
bought it at the right price
and rescued it for posterity
by expertly steaming it off
a damaged envelope?

I have no objection whatever
to people playing golf,
so long as,
like skeletons in the cupboard,
they keep it to themselves.
If they must,
they can bore the wits out of each other.

Two thirds of the world is starving.
There are wars everywhere,
and what, it seems,
does everyone do?
Play golf!

Golfers don’t seem interested to discuss
whether there’s a God or not,
or whether evolution
really was the best idea ever.
All they want to do
is play golf.
Golf, golf, bloody golf.

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A country rector in the Church of Ireland in the 1970s, depending on the parish, might have lived in a fine eighteenth century rectory. A house with graciously proportioned Georgian rooms with high ceilings, fine marble mantelpieces, and large windows with shutters. The kitchen might still have been in the flag floored basement, but by the seventies in most cases the original basement kitchen had been abandoned and a modern one made on the ground floor.

Outside there would have been a stable yard with coach-house, tack room, stables, and beyond the yard a haggard with cow houses providing all the agricultural facilities for the rector to farm the parish land in order to contribute to his income. There would have been an orchard and a fine garden with an extensive lawn.

Such a house and grounds provided all the facilities needed for gracious living. However, when a rectory of this kind had been built the rector would almost certainly have had a private income, enough to keep two or three domestic staff and two, or maybe three, outside men to keep the grounds, tend the horses, milk the cow for the house and provide fruit, vegetables and fuel, and maintain the grounds in which the family could spend leisure time.

By the 1970s this formerly gracious house and grounds had almost certainly fallen into disrepair and even into dilapidation. On a meagre stipend recent rectory families would have been unable afford help inside or out. The house would probably have had no central heating making it cold, draughty and damp so that the larger rooms were unusable in winter. The outbuildings would have been badly in need of repair, and probably had become the depository for all the discarded rubbish of previous rectory families and the dump for rubbish of one kind or another from church and other buildings around the parish. The stable yard would almost certainly have been covered with grass and moss and the two hours or more cutting of the lawn every week during the summer would have become a torment to the rector.

Such a house was provided with the job on my appointment to a parish in the midlands in the early 1970s. With the help of the parish we set about making it comfortable. The parish did necessary repairs, installed heating on the ground floor, decorated some of the rooms and we were able to make the house as comfortable as possible.

Outside was another story: the ancient apple trees in the orchard, despite years of neglect, still bore good fruit of old varieties, but it was extremely difficult to harvest them because of the extensive banks of briars that covered the ground at their base. The paddock beyond the lawn was overgrown and cleared only once a year for the annual parish fete. The walks through the former pleasure garden were overgrown and impenetrable and ivy covered the walls and in places dislodged stones making them dangerous.

To have lived in such a house it would have been easy to become isolated from the village which was something my wife and I were determined would not happen. We wanted all and sundry to feel comfortable coming to the rectory. One little boy had no such inhibition.

One Monday, my day off, I was up on the high perimeter wall cutting ivy when I heard a little voice below me on the footpath.

I looked down to see a small boy aged six or seven looking up.
‘I’m fine how are you?’
‘What are you doin’?’
‘I’m cutting ivy.’
‘Why are you doin’ that?’
‘Because if I don’t it’ll damage the wall.’
There was a long silence.    Then the boy said:
‘I drink stout you know.’
‘You don’t.’  I said, ‘You’re too young to drink stout.’
All the time I was working away, being careful not to fall off the wall.
I looked down again and the boy was gone.
Five minutes later I heard the little voice again.
‘I’m back.’
I looked down and there he was, an open bottle of stout in his hand putting it to his mouth.’
‘Where did you get that?’  I asked.
‘Me Da keeps them under the sink.’
I thought for a while and for something to say I said:
‘Who’s your teacher at school?’.
‘Sister Michael.’
‘Does she know you drink stout’?
‘She don’t, and if you tell her I’ll give you a kick on the arse.’

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Ten days passed and word came back from the military attache, that we were to go to the visa office, downtown Islamabad, and Mr Muktar Saeed was our man. It was thought wise that I should wear a collar and tie and jacket and my wife should dress formally too.

When we had applied to the Pakistani Embassy visa office in London when planning our trip, we ticked ‘double entry’ on the form.  Our passports came back stamped for single entry only.  I had ‘phoned the embassy and explained. ‘Not a problem,’ the polite official assured me. ‘When you get to Pakistan go to a visa office and they’ll give you a visa for a second entry.’  Simple as that, but not quite.

We recounted this when we arrived with family in Islamabad.  My cousin’s wife, herself Pakistani, smiled.  Nothing was quite as simple as that in Pakistan she explained and with two weeks in hand she started to work right away. Her first move was not to send us to the visa office in the morning.  Her late father had been a famous Pakistani General, so she contacted a friend of his, a military attaché at the Secretariat of the Chief Executive, the country’s Military Dictator.  Meanwhile we completed visa applications that she then had delivered to the Visa Office.

We arrived at Mr Saeed’s office where he sat behind a large desk on the polished surface of which there was a telephone, a blotter, a calendar and not one piece of paper.  There was a hat stand and some chairs and a carpet covered the centre of the floor. Mr Saeed was expecting us.  He stood up, shook hands with me, welcomed us graciously and enquired kindly if we were having a good holiday. He then spoke briefly on the telephone and told us that the gentleman at the door would bring us to Mr Aziz who would look after us.

As we sat waiting in Mr Aziz’s crowded public office it was clear that he was a man of consequence.  He sat at a desk inspecting papers, signing chits and handing them to applicants without a word.  Other unfortunates received no chits, but rather an angry lecture or an abrupt dismissal.  Mr Aziz was not a man to be taken for granted.  Eventually our turn came.  We stood beside his desk while he examined our applications, and I had the feeling that he was going to show these foreigners what an important man he was, and that issuing a visa to them was far from a formality.

Avoiding the inference that he was misreading our applications, it took us a little time to point out to him, diplomatically, that we were not applying for an extension to our visas to stay longer, but rather for new visas to re-enter Pakistan.  He then rooted in a bottom drawer, pulled out a thick manual of regulations and thumbed through the pages, eventually stopping to read.  He stood up suddenly and said:‘There is no letter from the Interior Ministry.  Follow me.’

We followed him back to Mr Saeed’s office, where we were again received graciously and invited to sit down, while Mr Aziz, speaking animatedly in Urdu, pointed to his book of rules.  Mr Saeed then said calmly in English: But they are not tourists, they are visiting family.’ We followed Mr Aziz back to his desk and stood in silence awaiting his decision.  ‘Your visas will be ready on Friday morning.’  We thanked him and left.

We were due to catch a train to Lahore from Rawalpindi on Friday afternoon at 4.00pm.  We had been reconciled to the possibility that our re-entry visas would not be ready in time. Friday, mid-morning, at the visa office Mr Aziz gave us our chit, but before our passports could be stamped, we had to go into the city centre to a particular bank to lodge the fee.  When we returned the visa office was closed for lunch.  We queued again and presented our receipt.  Half an hour later we had our visas.

Through chaotic city traffic we set out for the station at Rawalpindi and caught our train to Lahore with only minutes to spare.   We had achieved what we had planned would be one of the highlights of our holiday – a visit to the Indian city of Amritzar to see the golden Temple of the Sikhs.

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In Ireland in the mid nineteenth century we had what is sometimes referred to as the Hidden Holocaust. The deaths of the famine years when a million people died of starvation and a million more were displaced to Canada and America in what came to be known as ‘coffin ships.’

In 1847 Gerald Keegan and his new bride Aileen travelled on one of these ships, The Naparima, out of the Port of Dublin en route for Canada.   Gerald had studied at the seminary at Maynooth, but having decided that the priesthood was not for him, he became a hedge-school master.  He saw daily among those he taught, the effects of the famine. Some of his cousins were also on board availing of the offer of their landlord to emigrate in exchange for a waiver of rent arrears, ten shillings from the landlord’s agent on landing in Quebec and the promise from the Canadian government of 100 acres of land.

The Naparima, left the Port of Dublin laden with passengers way beyond capacity, providing extra profit for her owner.   Gerald and his bride had a cabin, a cubbyhole on deck that cost him £5, while his cousins were in appallingly overcrowded conditions in steerage. They soon became used to the sound of the sea against the hull, the creaking of the timbers and the wind in the rigging. A day or two out Gerald went below deck to visit his cousins. He was overcome with the stench of hungry passengers suffering from seasickness and dysentery, with many of the old and sick unable to leave their berths; a hoard of destitute and diseased humanity, and above all the silence of death.

On the fourth day out a boy of five and a young woman died. Both were dropped overboard at sunset.  Every day for the rest of the five-week voyage as fever spread, passengers died.  Three, four, five and more bodies every day were dropped into the ocean.  The number increased daily and the passengers, preoccupied with their own survival, became immune to the frequency of death.

Gerald and Aileen did what they could to help other passengers.  Gerald went to the captain to appeal on their behalf, but without success.‘Leave the poop,’ the captain shouted at him, ‘or I’ll pitch you overboard.  I’ll have no mutiny on my ship.’Aileen tended the women and made dresses of sacking for young girls who otherwise couldn’t go on deck for fresh air.

Despite death, the stench and the atrocious conditions the indomitable human spirit provided some moments of light relief.   Three old women sitting near the hatch to the galley smoking their doodeens stole a large pot of freshly made tea.  They gave it round to the passengers, filled the pot with water and returned it.  Then, casting him in a mock-heroic role, they tormented the Mate when he tried to find out who had stolen the tea.  Finally Mrs Doolan agreed to point out to him the culprit below deck, but the Mate would not follow her for fear of the fever, and stormed off defeated.

Some days later the same Mate ordered a young boy passenger up the foremast to fix tackle.  The lad’s mother had died the previous day.  After several attempts the boy could not do it.  The Mate pulled him down violently by the feet and on the deck beat him mercilessly with a rope end. Gerald lost his temper, took him on and beat him to pulp.

The Mate however had his revenge. When the ship arrived at Grosse Isle, Canada’s quarantine island, Gerald, though bound for Quebec, went ashore to bury some dead and when he returned to the wharf the ship had sailed and Aileen stood there with their belongings.The Mate had told her that Gerald had left a message for her to land.  Within days Aileen died of fever. One of Gerald’s cousins made it to an Uncle’s farm in Quebec. When her uncle heard of Gerald’s fate, he travelled to Gross Isle and found him on the point of death. He brought him out of the bunkhouse for fresh air and just before he died Gerald told him where to find his diary, in which he had recorded the events of the voyage.


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When things are going well there is always somebody to go over the top. During the Celtic Tiger years the Irish singer Samantha Mumba appeared at a celebrity event wearing a diamond-studded dress costing some millions of euro. If it had covered her properly it would have been worth millions more! Similarly during the Tiger years there were people who paid thousands of euro for handbags. When I heard this I was incredulous, so I found out the brand and phoned a well-known Grafton Street store to enquire.

‘Yes sir,’ the superior assistant said over the ‘phone, ‘our handbags range from
€ 4,000 to €12,000.  It depends on what the lady likes.’ I felt like replying:  ‘Her boiled egg lightly done,’ but I didn’t.
‘There’s a waiting list of months or even years,’ she said.
‘Can you get fakes?’ I asked, and without stretching a vocal cord she said:
‘I believe so, sir,’
‘And have you got any?’ I enquired.
‘No sir, we carry only the real thing.’
As the fella’ said:  ‘There should be a law against it.’  Well, believe it or not, there used to be.

Throughout history many cultures have had what were called sumptuary laws. One definition describes these as: ‘laws that restrict the personal consumption of goods based on class, income, occupation, creed or any other equally arbitrary criterion.’ The term also includes laws that placed limits on displays of wealth with food.

These days of ‘you are what you eat’ we forget that, despite the poverty of their subjects, princes and lords throughout history displayed their wealth and status by means of banquets.  Some of these feasts lasted for days and could include as many as 20 or 30 courses.  The high point of the feast was often the placing on the table of huge pies.  When the crust was broken, birds, animals or even, it is said, cherubic little boys, emerged.  You remember the nursery rhyme:  “Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie,/ When the pie was opened the birds began to sing,/ Wasn’t that a dainty thing to set before a king.”

In ancient Greece, amongst numerous sumptuary laws, there were restrictions on elaborate house furniture and the possession of gold and silver.There was an extensively developed system of sumptuary laws in ancient Rome.  These laws governed the kinds of material that could be used in making garments, the number of guests that could attend entertainments and they forbade the consumption of certain foods. A woman could not possess more than a half an ounce of gold and there was also a limit to the amount of money that could be spent on funerals and burial monuments.

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries Europe, when the old aristocracy became threatened by the rise of wealthy merchants and bankers, they used sumptuary laws to restrict the prominence of these ‘nouveaux riches’ who were becoming a threat to them.  These merchants and bankers flaunted their wealth by bedecking their wives in finery and jewels.  The wives of these wealthy Renaissance merchants had a myriad of excuses to circumvent the law; for example they claimed that jewelled buttons were functional and necessary to ensure modesty!

In the past in some Arab countries high-born ladies were required to cover their heads and faces, while concubines, servants and slaves were forbidden to do so. In these cultures veiling became a badge of social status as well as a device for ensuring anonymity.  In Italy where for centuries women wore veils, the problem arose that the anonymity afforded by the veil allowed women of inferior social status to imitate their social superiors.  Whereas the Church favoured head covering and veiling as a matter of modesty, some saw concealment as alluring.

In England Queen Elizabeth I issued a decree that only the nobility could wear clothes that included sable or clothes of satin, silk or cloth mixed with gold or silver. Furthermore in England, as in many other societies, the clothes that prostitutes wore were strictly controlled.

Specification of dress based on economic status was notorious in Japan. According to the Irish Japanophile, Lafcadio Hearn, also known as Koizumi Yakumo, poor women were not allowed to wear leather sandals; only sandals made of straw or wooden clogs.  They could not wear silk hair-ribbons or tortoise-shell hair combs.  They could wear wooden combs or combs of bone, but not of ivory.

Maybe at the next election the Government parties, in these times of austerity, should promise to at least put a cap on the price of handbags!

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The Irish countryside is full of characters. That is, people of eccentricity or of particular personality. I would like to tell you about two of them I knew who lived within no more than a mile so of each other.

I came to know Peter, a bachelor farmer, from times I stopped to talk at his gate when walking at Eadestown.   Peter’s farming was harmless.   He was much more interested in taking apart things that were broken, to find out how they worked, but didn’t always get around to fixing them.  There was a Morris Minor motorcar inside his gate that had grown old gracefully, and then slowly over the years had descended into dilapidation without further disturbance.   Nearby there was a heap of lime that had not been touched since the day it was delivered some years before.   Nature had covered it with a coating of grass and weeds as though to hide from the world her embarrassment at such waste.

Peter’s great interest was astronomy.   He would talk in unfinished sentences about the planets and the stars for as long as you had time to listen.   He watched television, listened to radio, and scoured newspapers to enhance his knowledge of the universe, and he wanted to share the awe he felt at its immensity and its mystery.    It seemed to me that his reason for not completing sentences was that so incredible did he find the universe if he stated fully the information he had gleaned he thought it might stretch your credulity to the point you would question his sanity.    He would say only ‘yes’ to any comment you might interject for fear that anything further might deflect him from telling you more of his wonder at it all.   He was for all the world like the man in Robert Frost’s poem ‘New Hampshire’ :
             I knew a man who failing as a farmer 
            Burned down his farmhouse for the fire insurance,
            And spent the proceeds on a telescope
            To satisfy a lifelong curiosity
            About our place among the infinities.
            And how was that for other-worldliness?

 Jerram was in his sixties, another bachelor; he survived beside the fire in his cottage on an acre or two of land.   He was something of a poet and had had a poem on the Glen of Imaal published in the local newspaper.   I used to meet Jerram, wearing wellington boots and carrying a Hessian bag on his way to the local shop and I always waved from the car, but Jerram would put his head down and walk on without a reck.

One Christmas at an old folk’s party in the Parish Hall I saw Jerram standing on his own and I went over to talk to him.
‘Hello, Jerram.’
‘Hello,’ he replied and took a half step backwards.
‘Any more poems published?’
‘No.’ A silence.
‘Do you enjoy occasions like this?’  He looked at me with a barely perceptible grin as though I was mad and then said simply:
Since there was no chance Jerram would initiate a sentence, I asked him some more questions as the only way to keep contact.   He answered them all in no more than a word or two.  Then I asked him:
‘Is there anything that really annoys you?’  There was a long silence.
Slowly the hint of a smile crossed his lips.
‘There is,’ he said.   I was making progress at last.
‘What is it?’  I asked.
‘It’s people asking me questions.’

One winter during a severe spell of weather half the countryside was laid low with ‘flu. Not having seen Jerram for a couple of days a neighbour found him in bed and called the doctor who immediately dispatched him to the County Hospital.
As soon as Fr Paddy, the parish priest, heard that Jerram was in hospital he went to see him. Fr Paddy was a smiling relaxed man who loved people. He dressed casually except on formal occasions. Eventually he found Jerram in a large ward of elderly men, he was lying flat on his back covered to his chin in an unruffled bed and staring at the ceiling.
Fr Paddy sat on the chair beside the bed.
‘Hello Jerram.’
‘When did you land in here?’ A pause.
‘I don’t know.’
‘How are you feeling?’
‘Do you feel a bit better since you came in?’ A long pause,
After further attempts to have a conversation there was a silence that Fr Paddy was determined not to fill. Eventually Jerram cleared his throat and looking straight at the priest he said:
‘Do you mind if I ask you a question?’ Progress at last.
‘No, Jerram you can ask me anything you like.’ Another silence and then:
‘Who are you?’

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Evolution, by its very nature, leaves extinct species in its wake. The evolution of farm machinery has left the breed farm labourer all but extinct. The old time farm worker did an honest weeks work for a modest wage. He often lived in a cottage that went with the job, and if he had an industrious wife she might keep her family in vegetables from their cottage acre.  The boss’s wife might supply, in season, more exotic produce, tomatoes, raspberries, strawberries, from her greenhouse or garden,

This was all part of a symbiotic relationship; an alliance of mutual loyalty between the farmer and the retainer.   It would also include the farm family ferrying the worker, his wife or children to town to an appointment with the doctor or dentist, and helping with any family emergency that might arise.

Paddy, when I came to know him was in his eighties and retired from his life’s work as a farm labourer.  He had an impish sense of humour that hadn’t diminished with age.  He spoke quietly and slowly and you had to be alert not to miss some of his gems.  He had been through the First World War, but like many an old soldier, referred to it only by humorous anecdote, and he was a passionate supporter of the ‘Lilywhites,’ the Kildare County football team.

The boss’s son, who had come home to farm, had been recently married.  The young couple were in the home place until the new bungalow down the road for his father and mother was finished.   Excluded from any major role in the kitchen, while her mother-in-law was still there, the new wife showed willing to apply her energies to any task, either in the house or on the farm.

Not long after they arrived home from their honeymoon, her husband asked her if she would be good enough to help with a family ritual: to run Paddy into the village three miles away, for his Saturday night in the pub.   She was delighted to be useful and when Paddy arrived into the yard, the new Missus put him into the car and off to the village.  The young woman, sensitive to Paddy’s honoured position with the family, made polite conversation to which he responded with his usual good humour.  When they arrived at the pub as he stood out of the car, his chauffeuse said:

‘Paddy, how will you get home?’  And with a look of total incredulity at her innocence he replied:

‘For God’s sake, woman, how did I get home from Salonica?’

On a fine day Paddy used to wander down to the farm to keep an eye on things.  He wasn’t backward about manning a gap when cattle were being moved, or turning his hand to a light job that he could still manage.

One spring I happened to call when the last bales of straw in one of the sheds were about to be used.  Now for those unfamiliar with farming it may be necessary to explain that over the winter, rats live in the comfort of the pile of straw bales kept for bedding cattle.  Each time a bale is taken, rats that are disturbed retreat further into the pile that is left, so that it is certain when the last bales are moved rats will run for cover.

On this occasion there were five or six of us, including Paddy, down the shed armed with forks, shovels and sundry other weapons to confront the rats.  With the wisdom of experience and knowing that rats in flight will make for a wall and run along it to escape, Paddy positioned himself towards one side of the shed.  As one of the men gingerly removed another bale, a rat made for the wall.

‘There you go, Paddy,’ he shouted.  Paddy saw it coming and didn’t move.  Then as the rat came closer, calm as you like, he took a step to his right and with his boot squashed the rat dead against the wall.  There was great applause.

‘Great man Paddy,’ said the young boss, and Paddy, unabashed, replied:

‘They’ll be asking me to kick for the county next.’

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