Category Archives: Childhood

Ireland, Remembering Sligo

Sligo 2017

Had I the heaven’s embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light;
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

W. B. Yeats

 

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Ireland, Sligo – The Town and the Poet

Sligo Postcard

“In a year’s time when the newspapers have forgotten me, dig me up and plant me in Sligo.” – W.B. Yeats

I confess to being disappointed when we first arrived in Sligo.  It appeared rather austere and grey and subdued and dull compared with the colour and vibrancy and the vivaciously energetic Westport that we had left behind. There were no gaily painted houses and no effervescent floral displays, no pavement tables outside the pubs and no evidence of any bubbling street entertainment.

But, I have said before that it is wrong to be too hasty and make a premature judgment about a place and this proved to be the case in Sligo because a walk into the town centre revealed its hidden charms. Now and again you have to scratch the surface a little to find what you are looking for.  Sometimes you need a crowbar but in Sligo we only needed a toothpick.

There is a strong association in the town with the poet W. B. Yeats (William Butler) and although he wasn’t born there he lived there for a while as a youth and according to his wishes is buried in a church yard nearby.  The town has connections with Goon Show star and writer Spike Milligan whose father was from Sligo and the boy band Westlife was formed there in 1998.

W B Yeats Sligo Statue

There is a statue of Yeats (not very flattering, in my opinion) but not of Spike Milligan or of Westlife, well, not that I could find anyway.  Down by the river quayside there was another famine statue, one of a family comforting each other at a spot where thirty-thousand people emigrated between 1847 and 1851.  I am beginning to understand that no Irish city or town is complete with a Famine Memorial.  As it happens there are also quite a lot in USA and Canada and one or two in Australia as well.

Sligo Irish Famine Statue

Although the streets were rather sombre in their appearance there were some interesting places in the town centre and it was nice to see individual traditional shops rather than modern chains. There was a pleasant walk along the banks of the river where people were enjoying the unusually high temperatures by standing in the doorways of the pubs and cafés and at the far end of the town was Sligo Abbey, long ago abandoned and ruined of course but still worth the entrance fee for a poke around inside the walls.

Interestingly it features in two short stories by W. B. Yeats – The Crucifixion of the Outcast, set in the Medieval times and The Curse of the Fires and of the Shadows describing its destruction in 1641. I made a note to look them up when I returned home.  Sligo Abbey was sacked and destroyed by the English and this is a recurring story in Ireland.  You need a thick skin to visit Ireland if you are English but at least the Irish people seem to have a forgiving nature even if they might not forget.

Sligo abbey Detail

After the walk around the town we took the advice now of the hotel staff and drove five miles west to the coastal village of Strandhill to a wonderful beach and a raging sea. I liked Strandhill straight away because there was free parking all along the front. I always compare this with my local seaside resort at Cleethorpes where the Council charges exorbitant fees to park up even in the Winter and Cleethorpes doesn’t get anywhere near comparison with Strandhill I can tell you!

When it comes to parking the priciest resort in England is Brighton, which charges £30 a day making it one of Europe’s most expensive destinations for leaving a car on a small strip of tarmac.  Next is Bournemouth at £18 – still more than millionaires’ playgrounds Monaco and Sorrento charging £15 and just under £18 respectively.

There was a good walk to be had along the pebble littered sand and we strolled along past the beach people and the brave surfers but there were no swimmers because everywhere there are warning signs saying that swimming is forbidden because although it looks inviting the sea is especially treacherous here.  It looked relatively safe and benign to me so I enquired of local people what the problem was. Apparently the way the tides and the currents enter the bay produce savage hidden rip-tides which make this place especially hazardous.

As we looked out over the Ocean and admired its natural beauty it was hard to imagine that it could be so dangerous.

Strandhill Beach Sligo Ireland

After an hour or so we left and as we drove away I was certain that Strandhill could easily force itself into a list of my top ten favourite Ireland beaches.

We returned to Sligo now because our plan now was to head north towards Donegal, the most northerly of the Southern Irish counties but we found time to stop on the way in the village of Drumcliff, just about five miles out of Sligo because in the cemetery there is the grave of W. B. Yeats with a headstone inscribed with the poet’s famous self-penned epitaph:

“Cast a cold eye on life, on death, horseman, pass by.”

Yeates Grave Sligi Ireland

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Ireland, Jellyfish Pizza

Jellyfish pizza

Ireland, Holy Shrine of Knock – Pictures

800px-Knock_ShrineLoaves and Fishes KnockKnock Religious ShopKnock Holy Shrine 02Knock Apparation MosaicKnock Shop SouvenirsKnock Signpost

Ireland, Research and Knock Airport

Ireland 03

There is a simple pub quiz question that comes up regularly and which I always get wrong.  The question is ‘what is the nearest country to the United Kingdom’ and the answer of course is Southern Ireland or Eire but I always forget about the border with Northern Ireland and blurt out ‘France, it must be France’.

If the Scottish Nationalists ever get their way then there will be two correct answers to the question which is likely to cause a lot of bar-room arguments!

I suppose I have always been a bit hesitant about travelling in the British Isles because being English I have always been rather conscious that we are not going to win many popularity contests with our nearest neighbours.

A lot of Scottish people seem to hate us and the Scottish First Minister, the Anglophobe, Nicola Sturgeon, desperately wants a vote in favour of independence. Until quite recently the Welsh used to burn down our holiday homes and the last time I went there I got a speeding ticket which I am convinced was issued only on the basis that I had an English registered car.  So I was a little concerned about visiting a country who apparently regard the English responsible for all their recent disasters from the Irish Famine to the failure to qualify for the Football World Cup!

On a more positive note, although it is a thousand miles away or so, Gibraltar seems to like to retain its British connections even if this is motivated by indecent self-interest!

gibraltar-ape_1861379i

The British Isles are a group of islands off the north-western coast of continental Europe that consist of the islands of Great Britain, Ireland and over six thousand smaller islands. The term British Isles however is controversial in Ireland where there are objections to its usage due to the association of the word British which in terms of Irish history continues to be considered colonialist. The Government of Ireland does not recognise or use the term and it prefers the term Britain and Ireland as an alternative description.  Even the British Lions Rugby team is now rebranded as the British and Irish Lions.

The England Cricket Team has an Irish Captain who refuses to sing the National Anthem which to me means he is simply not eligible!  Previously there has been a Scottish captain, Mike Denness and a Welsh Captain, Tony Lewis who  didn’t have the same problem.  I would say to Eoin Morgan sing or you don’t play and get the appearance money!

Ireland Guiness

In preparation for travel I carried out my usual research and used my favourite benchmarks to try and understand the country that I was visiting. Most impressive is that Ireland is placed eighth in the Human Development Index which means that it is the top ten of the most highly developed countries in the World and before the recent economic crisis it used to be in the top five.  The Index ranks countries by level of ‘human development’ and the statistic is composed from data on life expectancy, education and per-capita gross national income.

The economic crisis has had a negative effect on Ireland’s position in the European Happiness Index however and it is rated at only fourteenth out of thirty which is a very long way behind the United Kingdom but I was interested to see that in a recent poll in the Irish Times that Galway was voted the happiest place to be in Ireland and I was glad about that because that was where we were planning to go first.

Ireland has only two UNESCO World Heritage Sites which, let’s be honest, is a rather poor performance and I would suggest that someone in Dublin needs to start travelling around and making some applications – Australia has got nineteen for goodness sake!  The country also needs to do something about its Blue Flag Beaches because it now only has seventy when a few years ago it had one hundred and forty-two!

Ireland Inch Beach

But some statistics continue to be impressive and Ireland remains the most successful nation in the Eurovision Song Contest, which with seven wins is higher than all other competitors so who really cares about the economic crisis anyway?

We arrived in Ireland (an hour late thanks to unannouced Ryanair flight rescheduling) at Knock Airport, or Ireland West Airport as it is now known and as we descended the aircraft steps the wind tugged at the buttons of our shirts and the rain stung our cheeks as though we were walking through a swarm of bees.

Knock Airport

It turns out that this is a most unlikely airport. The site, on a hill in boggy terrain that is often shrouded in dense fog, was thought by airport planning experts to be hopelessly unrealistic but was built following a long and controversial campaign by Monsignor James Horan who had a sort of evangelical business plan to bring pilgrims to the nearby religious site of the Knock Shrine (more about that later) and who convinced both the Irish Government and the European Union to fund the project.

Perhaps due to Devine Intervention it is now the fourth busiest airport in Ireland after Dublin, Shannon and Cork and we were happy about that because on our quest to visit all of Ireland this provided us with a gateway to the North West.

Knock Airport 1

Religion, Hillmorton Chapel and St John The Baptist Church

When I was a boy I used to like stories from the Bible and  although a lot of the learning bits about going to school I found thoroughly uninteresting and a bit of a chore I did enjoy religious education and especially used to look forward to morning assembly when once a week the Minister from the Methodist Chapel nearby used to attend and tell a story or two in a children’s sermon.

Some of my school reports from this time revealed quite stunning results in religious education and at the same time as I was without fail picking up a disappointing sequence of Ds and Es for the important subjects like Arithmetic and English I was consistently being awarded As and Bs in religion.  In 1963 I scored an unbeatable 100% in the end of year exams.

Knock Shop Souvenirs

Strictly speaking we were a Church of England family but the Parish Church of St. John the Baptist in Hillmorton was in a sorry state of neglect and significant disrepair on account of the fact that the Vicar had little interest in his parish or his congregation because he preferred his drink.  People use to say that you always knew when he was coming because the beer bottles used to rattle in the whicker basket that he had attached to the handlebars of his bike.   More charitable folk said that it was communion wine.  He didn’t hold many services in the Church, well, certainly not as many as he was supposed to, and there was definitely no Sunday school.

For this reason I was sent to the Methodist Chapel where the Reverend Keene and the Sunday school teacher Christine Herrington made us feel most welcome.  I liked the Reverend Keene, he was down to earth and amusing and later he also came to secondary school to teach religious studies and take a weekly assembly there as well.

I remember that he smiled permanently and had a most pleasant disposition that was appropriate to a minister of the church.  He had one leg shorter than the other and wore a corrective shoe.  One morning in 1969 without any warning the Headmaster announced at morning assembly that following an operation he had died suddenly and I was really sad about that.

I don’t suppose so many children go to Sunday school any more but I used to really enjoy it.  The origin of the Sunday school is attributed to the philanthropist and author Hannah More who opened the first one in 1789 in Cheddar in Somerset and for the next two hundred years parents right across the country must have been grateful to her for getting the kids out of the way on a Sunday morning and giving them some peace and quiet and a chance of a lie in.

In contrast to the Hillmorton County Junior School I seemed to be learning something at Chapel and what’s more I was being really successful.  Every year we used to take an exam, well, more of a little test really, and if you passed there was a colourful certificate with a picture of Jesus and signed by absolutely everyone who was anyone in the Methodist Church hierarchy.  I was awarded a first class pass three years running and even though the school headmaster had written me of as an educational no-hoper I wasn’t in the slightest bit concerned because I was becoming convinced that I was going to be a vicar.

I must have inherited this from my mother…

001

I had heard it said that people went into the clergy after getting a calling from God and I used to lie awake at night straining out listening for it.  It never came.  I also understood that it might alternatively come as a sign and I used to walk around looking for anything unusual but this never happened either.

One night, some time in 1966, I think God dialed a wrong number and got dad instead because overnight he suddenly got religion in a very big way and we all started going to St John the Baptist which by now had got a new vicar.  His name was Peter Bennett and he was starting to deal with the problems left behind by the previous man who had retired somewhere into an alcoholic stupor.

At twelve years old I was too old for Sunday school and went to church now instead, I was confirmed in 1967 and joined first Pathfinders and then the Christian Youth Fellowship Association or CYFA for short which was (and still is) a national Christian youth club.  The good thing about CYFA was that I got to go away to youth conferences and camps and there were lots of girls there too.  The girl in the middle was called Elizabeth and was my first girlfriend!

I auditioned for the choir but was rejected on account of being tone deaf but to compensate for this disappointment the Vicar appointed me a server which meant that I got to wear a scarlet cassock, which I thought made me look like a Cardinal and had the important job of carrying the processional cross down the aisle at the beginning of evensong and putting the candles out at the end.

None of this could last of course and with no sign of the calling (there is no such thing as a sign unless you want there to be) and with dad’s religious fervour waning, my attention began to drift off in other directions such as pop music, girls and woodpecker cider and gradually I just stopped going to Church and to CYFA, left the bell ringing group and all of my scripture exam certificates were put away in an envelope in the family memory box and simply got forgotten.

In 2012 I visited the city of Padova in Northern Italy and dropped in to the Basilica of Saint Anthony (A Basilica is technically a double Cathedral because it has two naves) and inside there was a pile of postcards in different languages with an invitation to write to the Saint with a request.  I assume this could be like writing to Jim’ll Fix It Father Christmas or to ask for a cure for a gammy leg or something but I thought that I might use the opportunity to enquire why that elusive call never came?

Once again I didn’t get a response from the Big Man!

Craggy Island Parochial House

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Related Articles:

Mary Jones’ Bible

Childhood and Religion

Picture Stories From The Bible

The Miracle of the Feeding of the 5,000

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Cleethorpes Pier, Fish and Chips and Leicester City Football Club

Cleethorpes Pier and Beach

Cleethorpes is a seaside town that is attached to Grimsby like a barnacle to a rock.  This is unfortunate for the residents of Cleethorpes because they consider themselves to be superior to Grimbarians in all respects and snootily resent the association with its grubby neighbour.

The short train journey took only ten minutes or so as it passed through the site of old fishing docks, past the Grimsby Town Football Club ground (which is actually in Cleethorpes) and then alongside the estuary at low tide, sticky with mud before arriving at the station which really is the end of the line for this particular route.

The railway terminates here but is the starting point of many seaside holidays because this is where visitors to the resort arrive from towns and cities of Humberside and South Yorkshire because while people from Leicester and Nottingham go to Skegness in the south of Lincolnshire, Cleethorpes is the seaside of choice for people from Sheffield, Doncaster and Scunthorpe.

BR Cleethorpes

The station is situated at the western end of the promenade right in the middle of the tacky funfair and associated attractions.  The sort of place that children are drawn to like bees to nectar but which I cannot wait to pass through as quickly as possible.  I especially dislike those pointless children’s rides that do nothing in particular and seem to me to cost a disproportionate amount of money to the pleasure they provide.  I hate them outside supermarkets and in shopping malls and if I were Prime Minister the first thing that I would do is pass a law to make them illegal.

I hurried the children through this part of the visit with a promise that I would think about paying for a pointless ride on the way back later.

Cleethorpes Excursion Poster

Next we came to the pier.  The pleasure pier is quintessentially British, a genuine icon and one that I have never really understood. No one in England lives more than seventy miles* or so from the sea but when they get to the coast they have a curious compulsion to get even closer to the water and as far away from the shore as possible without taking to a boat. The Victorians especially liked piers and by time of the First-World-War there were nearly two hundred sticking out all around the coastline as though the country was a giant pin-cushion.

Cleethorpes Pier

Cleethorpes Pier now claims to be the site of the ‘Biggest Fish and Chip Shop’ in the World but I take that boast with a pinch of salt!

grimsby-fish-and-chips

The shortest pier in England is that at Burnham-on-Sea in Somerset (so they claim) but this one must be a true contender for the title.  It was opened in 1873 (financed by the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway) and was originally nearly a quarter of a mile long but over its lifetime it has been severely shortened.

English piers you see are rather fragile structures and over the years have had an alarming tendency to catch fire – Weston-Super-Mare, Brighton, Blackpool, Eastbourne, and Great Yarmouth have all suffered this fate but Southend-on-Sea is probably the most unfortunate of all because it has burned down four times which seems rather careless.

The problem with a pier of course is that they are generally constructed of wood and are highly combustible and a quarter of a mile or so out to sea they are also rather inaccessible to the fire service so once they go up in flames little can be done but to watch the blazing inferno from the safety of the promenade until the fire goes out by itself and all that is left is a tangle of twisted metal girders and beams.

PIER FIRE DAMAGE

Fire isn’t the only danger of course because the coast can be a rough old place to be in bad weather and severe storms and gales have accounted over the years for Aberystwyth, Cromer, Saltburn, Southwold and Brighton.  Reaching far out to sea also makes them rather vulnerable to passing ships and the aforementioned unfortunate Southend-on-Sea was sliced in half in 1986 by a tanker that had lost its navigational bearings.  One unfortunate man was in the pier toilets at the time and only just made it out in time before they tipped over the edge!

Cleethorpes pier is no exception to disaster and it burnt down in 1905. It was rebuilt but was shortened again in 1940 and this is my favourite Cleethorpes Pier anecdote.  It was demolished to prevent it being of any use to the German army in the event of an invasion of England via the Humber estuary.  Quite honestly I don’t understand why the German army would need the pier to offload their tanks and equipment when they could simply have driven it up the muddy beach but that is not the point of my story.

The dismantled iron sections were sold after the war and they were bought by Leicester City Football Club who used them in the construction of the main stand at their ground at Filbert Street.  From about the age of ten my dad used to take me to watch Leicester City and we used to sit in that stand every home match and so although I didn’t know it I had actually  been on Cleethorpes pier fifty years before I ever visited the place.

Leiceter City Filbert Street

* Based on a direct line drawn on an Ordnance Survey map from location to the first coast with tidal water.  The village that is further from the sea than any other human settlement in the UK is Coton in the Elms in Derbyshire at exactly seventy miles in all directions.