Night Fishing

Some of the most vibrant memories are of the things we did in the night. One late summer’s evening in 1984, a few short weeks before I finally left for London, we cohort of friends sat in the pub and contemplated the bottom of our drinks. It was an unusually nice night, weather wise, for a Friday. So what to do?

There was always the Late Show over in the Gaiety. It would start at about 11.30, just as the pub was throwing people out. That was often a good option. A muggy place to go that wasn’t home.

It was just that this night somehow felt like more. Something a bit bigger was required.

“Let’s go fishing.” Whose idea was it? I can’t remember.


“Let’s go down to the sea, to the beach, and go fishing.”

"But it's dark."

"That's kind of the point."

We often went to the coast during the day, out onto the rocks with our rods, hauling in mackerel and Pollock in the bright glittering sunshine. We had never gone at night though. We had never even thought of it.

It was after midnight by the time we had got some stuff sorted. Rods and reels and something from the fridge to use as bait. I had Dad’s car and was driving. I hadn’t had a drink because I never did back then. Everyone else had supped a little though, nothing serious.

What was it, a twenty minute drive down to Streedagh Beach? We pulled up at the edge of the sand and killed the lights. It was dark, then, really dark and we just sat for a while to see if our adapting pupils could pick some modicum of brightness off the place where the sea should be. As we sat and waited, a little edgily, 'Careless Whisper' played on the radio. I remember that well, it helps to place the moment in time. 

Across the beach with flashlights. Accustomed eyes could make out the rocky outcrop which was our destination and the white caps of the smallish waves. The sense most accosted was that of smell. Stranded seaweed and salt lay firm in the nose and on the lips. The torches cast stray beams across the beach as we trudged across, giving the impression that always, on the outer periphery of the beam, something was scuttling hurriedly away.

The potential of dropping a baited line into the darkened water. In the daytime, one can sense the silver mackerel skitter below the surface. At night though, that same sub surface area seems ruled by darker tentacled creatures and sharp toothed scaly demons. 

A reel soon buzzed loudly in the dark. Something had been snagged from the deep. The bounty was hauled in, the flashlight danced around.

“It’s a Shark. It’s a bloody Shark and it’s got me by the foot.”

It wasn’t a shark, it was a Dogfish and it had indeed got Shane by the foot. Both were eventually freed of each other and the fish allowed to slip back into the black water. Its skin scratched like embedded sandpaper as it trashed away. 

After an hour of Dogfish catching, for it was they who ruled the deep that night, things started to crawl out of the rocks, perhaps attracted by the provisions we had brought. Crablike, shrimplike, spiderlike things that emerged, Indiana Jones fashion, from ever seaweed laden crevasse. That was the end of the fishing trip, it had become too strange to stay.

Back in the car, shivering, damp, salty and home. On the night, it might not have been all that much of a night. But memory adds grit and shell fragments to it until it becomes a much greater thing than it ever was at the time.

It’s like that, isn’t it? Small things we do can grow big in memory. Just so long as they are something different, something new.

I Like to Like Things (Lyric)

I like to like things
that other people don’t.
I like to go places
that other people won’t.

‘Cos when all is said and done,
and the truth is there to see,
the things I like that you don’t
are the things that make me ‘me’.

I like to be smiling
when other guys are not.
Where others will take nothing
I like to take the lot.

‘Cos when the party’s over
I’d like you to agree
The times that I was smiling
Were the times that made me ‘me’.

I like to love the people
where love is hard to find.
When kindness is in short supply
I like to just be kind.

‘Cos when my time is done here,
and they come to lay me down,
the love that I once showed
might be the part that sticks around.

Ken Armstrong (Aug 2015)

In Among all of the Fleadh

We went to Sligo yesterday, my old hometown.

We went to see family who were visiting, converging from all sides, and also, in a happy coincidence, because the Fleadh was on. 

To the uninitiated, and I would almost count myself as one of those, the ‘Fleadh’ is the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann or, roughly translated, the Music Festival of Ireland. As the website says, “it is the largest single festival of Irish Music and can reach attendances of 400,000 over the course of nine eventful days.”

Yesterday was quite the spectacle. The streets were thronged with people, prominently families, milling around. In fact the first impression was one of nothing but people. People with no object but to ebb and flow around the streets and nothing else to do. 

But you’re not in the throng for long before the music starts to get you. In every corner, in every doorway, there is a person or persons, sitting, standing, perched, making traditional Irish music. There are tiny kids, frighteningly adept in their casual musicianship, and there are grizzled old people. There is also everything in between, from the most wildly exotic to the most boringly orthodox.

Behind the scenes, in the quiet halls and churches and schoolrooms of the town, serious business is being carried out. Earnest competitions are being held to decide who are the best musicians of the best, for this year at least. Pipes and harps and accordions and flutes and violins are all doing battle in the dusty halls. But really it’s out on the streets where the heart and soul of the Fleadh stays beating furiously. 

One forgets how festivals smell. We remember the look of them because we see them on the telly but the heady smoke and burger meat concoction has be relived to be remembered. We milled around with the rest, not indulging heavily in any way. Skimming the surface of the event. At first, at least. The thing with the Fleadh is that it slows you down and, as you slow, so you sink below the surface tension and become a little more immersed. Knees, hips, waist, the Fleadh can draw you down nicely until, before you know it you are right up to your neck in it. 

It was the best of fun. I think it’s happening in Ennis next year. You should go.

There’s a lesson to learn everywhere and in everything. At the very least there’s a lesson of which to be reminded. Yesterday, in the midst of the O’Connell Street melee, there was a girl playing a squeezebox, accompanied by a rather detached youth with a guitar. Nobody was listening to her but still she played on. I stopped and listened. 

A slow air, a bit melancholy. I could hardly hear it what with all the surrounding din. But then, gradually, I could hear it. And in a few moments more, I could hear nothing else. There was only me and the slow air. Even the girl and her surly companion were gone. 

Then it was over and I thanked her (she looked bemused) and dropped a euro coin in her case.

That's the lesson. The reminder. Even in the wildest of wild moments, we can find a quiet spot and, in it, discover a moment’s peace and calm. Then, when we come back out, everything might be a little better than it was before. 

Enough. Let’s have a dance!

Ken Burns is Teaching Me How to Stop Worrying

I first got to know the work of Ken Burns over the Christmas Holiday of 1996. We usually made the journey home to Ireland for Christmas but Patricia was expecting and it wasn’t a good time to travel. So we stayed together in London, saw nobody and, without question, it was one of the best Christmases ever.

Over that holiday, probably in that rather dead week between Christmas and New Year, BBC2 showed an episode of Burns’ documentary ‘The Civil War’ every morning. After promising myself I would only watch a little bit of the first episode, I became inescapably hooked and ended up watching it all and I’ve watched it several times since, in various viewings, over on PBS. 

It’s a brilliant, brilliant series. It you haven’t seen it, you should. Over a bunch of long episodes, the American Civil War is evoked through photographs, letters, newspaper reports and other sources. Some of the best voice talents in the world worked on it, the music is unforgettable.

The overall effect is one of total immersion in the story being told. 

I didn’t see any more Ken Burns stuff until last year when one of his newer documentaries ‘The Dustbowl’ came on PBS. Once again, I was hooked. Now I’m at it again. I recently noticed that Netflix has a treasure trove of Burns’ documentary series. I think they may be recent additions but I could be wrong. They mostly focus on times of great human challenge and the best part of them, for me anyway, is the human minutia they unearth. Ordinary people, often now aged, tell their ordinary stories of extraordinary times and the results are invariably moving and memorable.

The other night, for instance, I saw that another of the series was showing on PBS. This one was ‘The West’. I only stopped on it for two minutes but, still, the story I heard has stuck with me all week. In rough terms it concerned a massacre of a group of Calvary men  by a Sioux war party. Setting aside the niceties of the ‘cowboy movie’ it explained in most graphic detail how the bodies of the soldiers had been ravaged and defiled. All except for one man, the trumpeteer. He fought and fought until he had no bullets left and then he turned his trumpet around and fought with that. When he was killed, the Native Americans laid him out respectfully and wrapped him up in a buffalo skin. He had fought most valiantly as so was treated with care.

Little stories like that tend to stick around in your head.

At the moment, I am working my way through ‘The War’ on Netflix. It concerns itself with an American perspective on the Second World War and it uses all the now-familiar and often-tropes of the Burns documentary style. Still and all, I’m finding it compelling, informative and moving stuff. I know it came in for criticism about some of the things it omitted from its long running length but I’m not really equipped or informed-enough to deal with that. 'The World at War' may be a more definitive, complete work but 'The War' has lots of real people and small stories in it and that's what makes it work for me.

In many ways, I reckon I am the perfect audience for Ken Burns’ work. I never did History in school. To me, it was a dry, dusty old subject that was best given a wide berth. As I have got older, and actual events that I have lived through have themselves slipped into history, I have started to rethink things a bit. History is actually real life stuff, just from another time. There is that rather clichéd view that if we don’t know our history, how can we know who we are. I still don’t quite buy into that one but there is one thing I am starting to believe.

I can begin to see that there is a context for our own lives to be found in history, in the lives of those people who lived years ago. Really, now that I think about it, how could there not be?

Watching ‘The War’ on my telly has done at least one useful thing for me. It has started to show me how the enormous worries of my everyday life don’t really amount to the proverbial ‘hill of beans’ when held up against the enormous trials that our forefathers had to bear. Ken Burns film about World War 2 gives its account from right down at human level, with the men and women who lived it all first hand. The things they had to endure, the horrors and the pain, make my own 2015 concerns seem smaller and punier than they did before. 

There's a lesson to be learned there. A lesson beyond the obvious one of respect and remembrance for the sacrifices that were made by my ancestors for my peace and freedom. I owe it to those people to live the best life I can, as unshackled as possible by concerns which are minuscule in comparison to theirs. It's easier said than done but perhaps the saying of it might make the doing of it easier.

It’s funny that only now, so many years into my own life, I start to see the value of knowing a little about what went before.

I think I owe that, in part at least, to Ken Burns and his films.

Thoughts on Saving a Wild Thing

Yesterday will be remembered, among other things, as a day that concerned itself with wild things which have been killed and wild things which have been saved.

The day started with me glancing through Twitter, as I tend to do on the weekend. There was much talk, still, of Cecil the Lion and of the dentist man who had killed him with his longbow.

I knew the story, of course, everybody did, but it had been a busy week and I hadn’t gone any deeper into it than what I was shown. Now, with some downtime in hand, a link to an article beckoned. One click and I was there. And there was the photograph, the one I somehow hadn’t seen during the week. The dentist man, standing over his trophy, grinning broadly, delighted. 

I had been aware that there was some kind of picture and I had expected to have some kind of emotional reaction to it when I finally saw it. It’s just that I rather expected anger and, instead, what I got was sadness, quite a considerable sadness. My focus did not fall on the grinning man or his compadres. My eyes fell on the Lion, now nothing more than dead meat, stopped, laid low, forever silenced by a single act.

I should have been raging but it just seemed so damned sad.

I had to go out to do some work and the sadness came along with me for the ride, hovering somewhere over the headrest of my car seat. I was a bit surprised that it did, I try not to dwell on stuff but Cecil did not want to go away.

My work took me to a place that was pretty far removed from the ‘beaten track’. An old house, deserted and empty, with no human being for perhaps a mile around. As I walked in the hugely overgrown front garden, I saw a patch of brown colour that didn’t seem to belong, over by the post-and-wire fence. As I came closer, I saw that it was a young wild deer, a fawn, lying dormant on the grass. 

As I drew closer, I expected to see a carcass, fly-blown and depleted, a victim perhaps of some stray dog. But no, when I got with ten yards, the ‘carcass' shot its head up and regarded me wide frightened eyes.

Another few steps and I could see that one of the fawn’s rear legs was seriously entangled in the wire of the fence. It has become wound around tight in the struggle and was biting cruelly into the leg. This animal was going nowhere by itself. 

I moved in to try to free it and, immediately it started bucking and starting, trying to get away. I worked the wire with my hands, getting nicely kicked in the process but it was all far too tight and too strong. I needed a pair of wire cutters. I hit the car and drove to the nearest farmhouse where a kindly neighbour dug out some tools and drove back with me to help. This man was one of those capable rural men and he had the little deer free in no time. I would have simply let it run away into the wild but the man knew the wild deer herd quite well. He thought the fawn might have some trouble finding them again so he said he would keep it at his house until the herd came across the back fields in the evening and then he would reunite them. 

That was it really, the photo is of the fawn in the man’s embrace. It seemed quite unstressed, having been released from the painful trap, though if we had released it, it would have doubtless bounded off for the hills.

I felt good about all this. It was like some unbelieved-in karmic force had noted my sadness at the senseless loss of one wild life and had then guided me towards an opportunity to save another. If I hadn’t arrived in that overgrown garden yesterday morning, then nobody else would have. I was permitted to be a tiny force of good in the world and it was nice.

Later that evening, we rounded off the day with a lovely barbecue with friends.


Sorry, what?

You had a ‘what’? A Barbecue? With meat?

Even with my most superficial skim of Social Media after the killing of Cecil, I know that this has been a hot issue with many people. The fact that someone who eats meat can feel pain at the death of the lion and, in my case, feel happiness at the saving of one small creature. I can see why people who feel strongly would feel that way. Hark at the eejit, saving the cute Bambi and then running off and eating its mother for his tea.

When looked at in that way, it does seem rather embarrassing. But I’m a meat-eater, I always have been. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel.

What I think is this. We don’t find our humanity in huge events, we find it in tiny intimate details. When something becomes intimate to us, we can see what kind of a person we are by the way we react to it and by what we do about it. 

Cecil became intimate to many people for lots of reasons, the celebrity of the lion, the leeriness of the imagery, the availability of a culprit. Similarly, the fawn was intimate to me because, well, it was right there and I was the only one who could do anything for it. What was I to do? Say, “Sorry, I’m a meat eater," and leave it there to die? What kind of a human would I be then?

I think we have to embrace any opportunity we get to feel, to really feel something, even if there’s some level of hypocrisy in the feeling, at least it’s human and thoughtful and empathetic. It’s a complicated business. What if had been a rat trapped in that fence rather than a beautiful fawn. Would I have run for the farmer then?

Even the people who (not without reason) are baffled by all the meat-eaters who mourned Cecil this week, even they are not immune to the lure of the intimate story. Most of them were not outraged specifically about big game hunting on the day before Cecil was killed. They may well have had a general outrage but not a specific one. It was the intimacy of the story that made them feel the way they did. 

We shouldn’t fight it. We need to feel, to be made to feel. But we are only human and we simply can’t feel everything for everything. We need to find our tiny little focal points of emotion and feel as much as we can for them. 

Then, perhaps, we may be doing okay.