Bloody Cartoons

In 1981, when it was time to go back to college for the second year, I once again had nowhere to live. Maggie, my lovely landlady of that first year, had died over the Summer and her house now stood empty and awaiting probate. I went back to the B&B I had briefly stayed in at the start of my first year and scoured the evening paper every day for a lead on a room… any room, really.

In the spirit of ‘Any old port in a storm’, I ended up in one of those old Georgian houses on Lower Sherrard Street. They are prettier now than they were then. It was a rather peculiar set-up. The run-down house was populated entirely with men who worked the building sites of Dublin as labourers. There might have been 12 or 15 of them at any time and the turnover of people was often fast. Every Monday to Thursday, two ladies came into the basement kitchen and prepared an evening dinner for the residents. The weekends were a free-for-all, taken up primarily with drinking and sleeping.

At just turned eighteen, I was far-and-away the youngest resident of the Lower Sherrard Street establishment, and, in retrospect, I really shouldn’t have been there at all. I was a skinny little dude in among all these giant bull-workers of men. Still, I had my little room at the very top of the house which had a bed and… well… it had a bed. So what if I had to pass through another man’s bedroom to get to mine and so what if that man was a huge Viking red moustached guy who never got out of his bed because he didn’t have the money to pay his rent and who feared, if they caught him with his feet on the floor, he would get chucked out.

So what? I had a place to stay, a roof over my head. That was something.

In the weekday evenings, when drinking was never done, the men would mostly gather in the basement room and watch the little telly here. Nobody really spoke to me much at first. One evening I tried to break the ice with Frank, who was a cool-looking Northern Irish man who looked like a rough cross between George Peppard and Lee Van Cleef. Frank was evidently struggling with the crossword in the paper, and this was the first tiny sign of something I might be able to help with. I was sitting on a chair beside him when he groaned for the fourteenth time and scribbled a word out.

“What’s the problem?” I asked, smiling all the time.

He looked at me.

“There’s no problem,” he said as he turned away and went back to his puzzle.

They were fine men, just tough and circumspect in their relationships. The vast majority were from Northern Ireland, and they retained the natural caution that growing up there in the sixties and seventies would unavoidably instil.

There was no magic bullet. Over time, as I stayed and settled in, I became a trusted (if odd) member of the cohort. I did my own thing and minded my own business, and the men came to accept me, probably for holding my own with them. I was so different to everyone else there. I was the only one under twenty, the only student, almost the only Southern Irish person. I was naïve and possibly a bit timid, but I was funny too and, after I learned how far I could go with a joke or a quip, I think I gained a little respect for that.

People just get to know people too, don’t they? One Friday evening, in the quiet time before the pubs let out, I was watching the film of ‘Woodstock’ on the telly. I got a bit lost in an extended song by someone or other, eyes closed, going with the flow of it. When it ended, I opened my eyes and Crossword Puzzle Frank was grinning over at me.

“You were really enjoying that,” he said, with some hint of amazement in his voice.

“I was, yeah,” I replied, and, in these tiny ways, friendships can be started.

I generally went home for the weekends because the level of debauchery and drunkenness in the basement room often reached epic levels then. In weekends where I had to stay because I had work to do, I would camp out in my top room, sitting on the edge my bed with my drawing board and tee square balanced on my knees and a gang pack of fig rolls by my side. I would go to a movie on Saturday night and have a McDonalds but, otherwise, the fig rolls were my primary fare until Monday evening’s dinner.

Weeknights, there were often epic games of 25 around the basement table and I became quite good at it. Mostly because you didn’t want to play the wrong trump at the wrong time to this crowd.

But mostly it was the telly.

One evening, a sizable bunch of us were watching ‘Death Wish’ on the telly when, suddenly, the basement window exploded inward in a shocking hail of shattered glass. I sat in my chair and looked around.

“What the hell was that?” I asked the room.

But the room was empty, apart from two guys behind the couch. Everybody else had vacated the space with blinding speed. The Northern Ireland reflexes were much more finely tuned than my own.

The ‘explosion’ had been caused by a drunk passer-by on the street finishing his bottle of beer and discarding the empty through our basement window. His failings were eloquently pointed out to him by some of my housemates. The less said on that, the better, I think.

There was one other resident of the house who was not a building construction labourer. A sullen middle-aged man, he wore a dark grey suit at all times and came and went from his dinner without much to say. He never had anything to say to me.

Until, one day, he did.

It was late on a quite a Monday in the basement TV room. There was only a handful of us in the room and I was the only one bothered with the telly. I was watching ‘Film ’81’ with Barry Norman and Barry was busy reviewing the latest Disney animation ‘The Fox and the Hound’.

This man came into the room and stood there.

“Is anybody watching this?” he asked, pointing towards the television with his chin.

Nobody spoke, until I did. I had been there a little while at this point and felt I was a member of the household.

“I’m kind of watching it,” I said.

He glared at me, seethed a while, then erupted.

“Fuckin’ cartoons. Fuckin’ cartoons. I don’t work all day to come in here and have to watch children’s fuckin’ cartoons on a Monday night.”

“It’s Film ’81, this bit will be over in a minute.”

“Fucking cartoons_”

I figured it was time to go to bed. Sometimes the temperature rose in the TV room, and it was best to get out of it. I got up and left the room.

But the guy came after me. He caught up with me on the stairs. He spun me around and grabbed me by where my lapels would have been if my jumper had lapels.

“Fuckin' Car-Toons.”

He had quite a bit of age, height, and weight on me. I couldn’t do much more than let him run down his rant and hope it didn’t get too bad. Eventually he stopped and stormed back towards the TV room, most likely to change the channel.

Word got about the house that I had been accosted. When the ladies who made the dinners let me know that the guy had been warned about his behaviour, I didn’t have much faith in that. But when Frank asked me my opinion on five-down and quietly told me that the guy would not trouble me anymore, I figured I was okay… and I was. The guy moved out shortly afterward and I, for one, was not all that sorry to see him go.

Frank was philosophical about the little interaction.

“Men in his line of work sometimes get like that at his age. You have to watch out for them.”

It turned out that he was a schoolteacher.

This second-year accommodation of mine was no place for a young student. I should have started looking for a different place at first opportunity, but I stayed all year. Then, for third year, I went back again.

It wasn’t ideal, far from it.

But I learned some stuff there that has served me well over the years, I think.

Michael and Me by Eddie Armstrong

My eldest brother, Michael, sadly passed away this week.

I was honoured to give a eulogy for him at his funeral mass. 

But I thought my elder brother, Eddie, grasped hold of an elusive thing in his own eulogy at our final (for now) farewell. 

I asked him if I could record it here and he kindly agreed.


    Michael (obscured) with Eddie (centre) on Lough Gill with Dad, in his Boat

Michael and Me

This short story, which I call ‘Michael and Me’, is me explaining to you what I mean when I say to Michael, ‘I’ll see you on White Shore’. If I fall apart in the telling, bear with me and we’ll make it through it together.

The last verse of the poem by Máirtín Ó Direáin ‘An tEarrach Thiar’ /’The Western Spring’:

Toll-bhuillí fanna

Ag maidí rámha

Currach lán éisc

Ag teacht chun cladaigh

Ar ór-mhuir mhall

I ndeireadh lae;

San Earrach thiar.

Gentle lapping of oars

As a currach full of fish

Comes towards the shore

On a calm golden sea

At eventide

In the Western Spring.

Michael and me spent many of our years fishing. On the river, in short trousers, we’d be up at ‘the Slip’, that was where the boats went into the river, up opposite the Jail road. Fishing for eels, we’d dig up the worms and put them in a jam jar full of clay, but Michael wouldn’t put the worms on the hook, that was my job.

On Lough Gill. We’d be up early in the morning getting ready to ‘head up the lake’, Mam would be making the sandwiches while we’d be grabbing the breakfast and ‘getting the boats ready.

“I’ll bring up the oars and the engine while you bail out the boat”.

‘Up’ was up to the ‘Steps’ - the gaps in the wall where the boats sat in the river.

As the years went on, we got our own boats and engines, Michael had a white 8 HP Honda 4-stroke engine that didn’t burn oil, unlike my 1½ HP 2-stroke Seagull that did. I loved the smell it left in its wake, Michael was already more environmentally conscious, even way back when I didn’t know what that meant.

‘Where’ll I meet ye for tea?’ was a common conversation.

‘I’ll see ya on White Shore,’ was all that was needed. White Shore is at the top of the lake, a long way up. That was enough.

We’d head when we were ready, up the river, through the Narrows and out onto the lake. I might head up the back of Beezie’s island, around by Goat island into Benowna bay, then cut across the Sandy ridge at Church island, out past the Cormorant rocks and up Corwillick. Michael might head up the Shellhouse, hit out to Perr Rock from the Castle Point and up through the Rookeries.

If I was in first, I’d be gathering the sticks. He’d come in and start lighting the fire. Smokey tea from the black kettle, boiled on the fire, and Mam’s sandwiches. Hanging out with your big brother, doing what we loved. That was the life.

When we’d be pushing out the boats after the tea, we’d part with, ‘I’ll see you when we get down’. ‘Down’ was back home off the lake.

Back at the steps in the evening it’d be, ‘I’ll bring down the engines and oars while you tie up the boats.’

                        *                       *                       *                       *

A friend – someone who may or may not be there when you don’t need them but is always there when you do. That was Michael and me.

I have two oak trees in my back garden that commemorate Mam and Dad’s passing. Mam’s one is over 15ft tall and Dad’s is about 10ft. Michael grew them from acorns.

I have a chestnut tree in my front garden. The conversation went, ‘Ah sure take it, or it’ll die. It’s a native species, not like those two red oaks you have at your gates’. He could talk ya into anything. So there’s a chestnut tree in my front garden. It’s been struggling since it went in but I suspect it’ll thrive from now on. Now, suddenly, it’s my commemoration for him.

                        *                       *                       *                       *

Michael and me loved our music, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan were high on the list. We loved fantasy and science fiction, the Lord of the Rings was high on that list. Ken and me picked three songs, one from Cohen, one from Dylan and one from the Lord of the Rings.

Cohen’s ‘Alexandra Leaving’ depicts the Lord of Love hoisting his friend up on his shoulders, to carry her home. I liken his depiction to what’s happening here today:

Michael hoisted on his shoulders

They slip between the sentries of the heart

Michael and me did the ‘Plans of the House’ for Carrie and me. Who else? We knew what we wanted, he helped us build our dream home and helped make our dreams come true.

Dylan describes Michael and me eloquently:

I could make you happy, make your dreams come true

Nothing that I wouldn't do

Go to the ends of the Earth for you

To make you feel my love

The last song ‘Into the West’, from the closing scene of the Lord of the Rings, covers the last thing I’ll say today for Michael and me. Annie Lennox will do it justice, I’ll leave you with a few of the more poignant lines:

Lay down

Your sweet and weary head

night is falling

You have come to journey's end

Sleep now

And dream of the ones who came before

They are calling

From across the distant shore


A pale moon rises

The ships have come to carry you home


Don't say

We have come now to the end

White shores are calling

You and I will meet again


Rewilding, My Ass

The back garden is a bit of a mess. Again. Overgrown, weed ridden. That rusty, creeper-submitting trampoline in the corner that nobody’s been on in a decade. You get the picture.

It’s lovely.

I’m rewilding, you see. Rewilding, as you all know, is the return of a habitat to a natural state for purposes of conservation and environmental improvement. So that’s what’s happening down my back garden, missus. The bees and the little bugs and the hedgehogs and the… the… worms, and such are all being given a natural, un-tampered-with place in which to placidly co-exist…

Yeah, right.

You’re fooling nobody, Armstrong. Nobody.

That garden has always been a bit of a mess. Not so much because you’re a lazy bastard but because you’re not all that committed to order and beauty in your environs. Certainly not committed enough to put the hard hours into it.

At this moment, Midsummer, the place is a riot of brambles and tall weeds in full bloom. Winter almost comes as a relief sometimes, when the growing finally stops and falls back for a while.

My neighbour only makes matters worse. He’s one of those tidy buggers. A beautiful garden with everything in its place. He’s the best neighbour in the world, just too darned organised. He’s making me look bad.

“He’s retired”, I say to myself, “he has time of all this raking and bagging and clipping and such.” But there I go again, only fooling myself. If I were retired, I don’t think I’d be mulching with the same gusto that he is. In fact, I don’t think I’d be mulching at all.

So the garden brings bees and birds aplenty. It also brings a regular visit from that other tiny burrowing creature, Guilt. I find it hard to enjoy my garden without feeling guilty about it. It is a symbol of my general uselessness. I mean, look at me. I’m sitting here typing this crap when I could be out there dead-heading something or even just cleaning out the garage for Chrissakes.

And things mount up. That universal tendency toward Atrophy is evident everywhere around my homestead. Every day that nothing is done leaves more to do. I become morbidly fascinated by abandoned buildings and ruins. The process of how all neglected things follow only one course and all end up in the same condition. Fucked.

Of course, I have a list of things to do. It dances around in my head, in a long T-Shirt, to some half-forgotten punk beat. It sticks its tongue out at me and tips me a middle finger. I try to ignore it and do the dishes instead. I can manage that much.

As I look out at my garden now. The house sparrows are down at the water bowl - drinking then flying up to sit on the back fence and wipe their beaks, first one side then the other, on the edge of the wood. Sometimes a large bird or a wayfaring cat may startle them but they never go far away. They like my back garden, you see. They like the meadow qualities it increasingly demonstrates. They are happy out there.

And here’s the thing.

So am I.

I really like it. I really, really like it.

I don’t crave any pin-perfect, hyper-organised yard. I admire my neighbour’s endless handiwork but I don’t envy it. I like things rough, I guess. I’m that rough kind of a man. I’ll go out in a minute and top up the water in the bowls and put out some seed. I’ll enjoy the comings-and-goings of the day via occasional peeks through my kitchen window (which needs a wash, tick) and it will bring me much pleasure.

I like the Wilding. Even if it’s not the real reason that my back garden is in shit. The gentle sounds of the creatures who live there. Wilding suits me just fine.

I just wish I could stop feeling so darned guilty about it all.

It’s spoiling my buzz.