Night Hawks

(by Gerry Moss, from IMC Newsletter Winter 2004)
Boyhood memories of a winter hike in Wicklow.

Ó áit go háit ba bhreá mo shiúl, ‘S dob árd mo léim ar bharr an tsléibh’,
I long ‘s i mbád ba mhór mo dhúil, ‘S ba bheó mo chroí i lár mo chléibh;
Mar chos an ghiorria do bhí mo chos, Mar iarann gach alt is féith,
Bhí an sonas romham, thall ‘s abhus, Sa ghleann ‘nar tógadh mé.

We were on top of Djouce – we knew that for sure. As to what time it was, well, that was anyone’s guess. Midnight, perhaps, or an hour or two later. We could only speculate, as there wasn’t a watch between the five of us. In those days a watch was considered something of a luxury, even among adults.

Not that the lack of a watch bothered us; time wasn’t all that important. But we didn’t have a compass either, which was a matter of some concern, to two of us at least. I was bothered because I knew it was going to be difficult finding the correct route down off Djouce in darkness, and that was my job. Barry was worried for entirely different reasons. Having ‘borrowed’ his Da’s compass from home, he had lost it somewhere along the way. His Da, who would never have agreed to let him have it in the first place, would give him what-for when he discovered it was missing. It was one of those little round compasses, not much bigger than a Euro coin, in a brass case. When held in the palm of the hand the needle danced and spun like a miniature Michael Flatley, so you had to lay it down on a level surface and wait for it to settle, before you could take a bearing. We had left it sitting on a level piece of ground, somewhere near the banks of the Dargle down in Glen Soulan.

The first time I ever set eyes on Barry, he was sitting cross-legged in the bow of a canal barge at Portobello bridge, the compass on the deck between his feet, and he keeping a sharp look-out to make sure they didn’t stray off course (his Da was at the tiller). As kids we used often go down to the canal tow-path and wait for a barge to come along. Back then they were horse-drawn; the big, patient animal plodding steadily along, towing several tons of mixed cargo down to the midlands, and returning, days later, with a load of turf. We would fall in behind the horse, take hold of the tow-rope and haul away for a mile or so, out to the green fields and open country beyond Harold’s Cross bridge. Whether the horse appreciated this assistance or not is a moot point – we thought it was great gas – and it was our contribution to the war effort.

With an eye to getting access to the compass I persuaded Barry to join the Scouts and we soon became good pals. Shortly after this, his Da made a career move to the Corpo, where he was appointed First Mate on the ‘SS Shamrock’. To most Dubliners this ship was known as ‘the shit-boat’, but Dublin’s port workers had derisively christened it ‘Alfie Byrne’s Yacht’ (Alfie was a flamboyant TD for the inner city and, on at least two occasions, Lord Mayor of Dublin). The ordure from Dublin’s sewers was pumped into the ship’s hold on a daily basis and, when it was full, it would cruise out of the port and dump its load on the sea-bed in Dublin Bay. As a pal of Barry’s I was privileged to be invited along on one of these voyages, my first ever sea cruise. While the ship steamed in a circle off Howth Head we stood at the stern and gazed in wonder as she jettisoned her cargo, some of it sinking to the sea-floor, some of it floating to the surface. Remarkable.

And every Friday morning, Nellie, the old fishmonger, would come pushing her pram-load of fish up and down our street, hawking her wares to the cry of ‘Lovely Howth Herrings’. We always had some for dinner.

Not that Barry’s compass would have been much use to us that night on Djouce; we wouldn’t have been able to see the needle. For we had no torch. Just like the compass, we had a torch when we started out. Actually, it was a bicycle lamp, and I had it taped to the shoulder strap of my rucksack, but the intense cold had killed the battery off within a couple of hours (the old twin-cell bicycle batteries were notoriously unreliable) and my funds were too meagre to allow for the comfort of carrying a spare.

Not that a torch would have been much use, come to think of it. We were in a white-out. A bitter, biting north-east wind was sweeping clouds of spindrift across the snow-covered mountain, blocking out the moonlight, reducing visibility to zero, filling the air with needle-sharp micro-pellets that stung the flesh, blinded the eyes, poured down the back of the neck, clung to hair, eyebrows and eyelashes and coated every stitch of our outer garments in an icy armour.

Not that our outer garments amounted to all that much. We were all in shorts, for one thing. This was a scouting trip – the Hawk Patrol on a winter night hike – and we were all in uniform. Small, skinny, and clad in shabby hand-me-downs, we were no Famous Five, but we were tough as old boots for all of that, inured to hardship, and well used to covering long distances on foot. Foddy, at the tender age of ten-and-a-half, was the youngest, and I, thirteen-going-on fourteen, was the old hand, the Patrol Leader, the one they depended upon, God help us, to get them up and down safely.

The night had started out quite well. We travelled to Enniskerry on the 44 bus, trooped up the hill out of the village and filed quietly past the gate-lodge into the Powerscout estate. As we passed the rear of the mansion a barn-owl, a pale, ghostly shape on silent wings, drifted past and, later, a badger padded across our path as it headed for the river, otherwise we had the dirt roads of the estate all to ourselves. We were headed towards the Deerpark and waterfall, the full moon lighting our way on a clear, cold, frosty night. Our destination was a cottage at Oldbridge, near the mouth of Lough Dan. Our route taking us over Djouce, down to Luggala, along the track to the Inchavore River at the head of the Lough and on around the western side of the lake, by the green road, to the cottage. A fair step.

We were quiet again as we tip-toed in past the waterfall gate-lodge (they didn’t have a dog, as I knew from an earlier recce) and, a couple of hundred yards beyond the cottage, we struck up the hillside, through oak trees that have since been felled, following one of a series of paths created by the estate owners in earlier days. We followed the path along the rim of the valley, the one we knew as ‘the mad earl’s walk’, and even Foddy, ever talkative, was gobsmacked by the view. The moonlight picked out the waterfall as it cascaded down over the rocks, a ribbon of silver against a dark background; the river meandered along the floor of the glen, a necklace of gleaming shallows and dark pools, while the pale, dim outline of the Big Sugarloaf provided an impressive backdrop.

It was when we rounded the shoulder of Maulin and came in sight of Djouce and Glen Soulan that I realised we were in for a night of it. The mountain was draped in snow, all the way down to the banks of the Dargle. But it was the upper half that looked ominous: the wind whipping up flurries of spindrift, sending them swirling, racing across the slopes, obscuring the summit in a frenzied, agitated cloud.

There were no tracks worth talking about in those pre-Wicklow Way days and deep snow overlying knee-high heather makes for hard going, all the more so if your knees are not too far above the ground to begin with. The snow and heather tugged at our knee-stockings, dragging them down around our ankles, exposing spindly shanks to the icy blast. Foddy found the going particularly tiring, so we divvied out his gear between us: Macker, the Assistant Patrol Leader, took his grub; Barry took his plate and mug, I took his army blanket. Then I looped my lanyard around the back of my belt to make a cow’s-tail and, with Foddy tucked in behind me, hanging on to it, we proceeded in single file (we always called it Indian File, it had a much better ring to it), with Macker bringing up the rear.

Short, wiry, taciturn, Macker was totally reliable, the ideal anchor-man, the sort you were always glad to have on your side in any difficult situation. A hard man in the making, at twelve years of age the fingers of his right hand were burnt mahogany-brown from smoking Wild Woodbines, the cheapest untipped cigarette on the market. A law unto himself, he once admitted that, when he decided to join the Scouts, he went out to Terenure, stole a bicycle from outside the Garda Station, sold it to a man who kept a knocking shop in Cuffe Street, and purchased a second-hand uniform with the proceeds. Unorthodox, but showing initiative, you must admit.

Within a month of our night-hike he was dead, killed while skimming the coal-lorries on the North Wall. The coal-boats were a familiar sight on the docks: the dockers down in the hold, stripped to the waist, covered from head to toe in coal-dust as they worked like Trojans, shovelling the loose coal into huge metal buckets. When full, the buckets were hoisted aloft by crane and tipped onto the lorries waiting in convoy. All of this was done under the watchful eyes of a band of youngsters, each one with a sack tucked beneath his arm. As a loaded lorry slowly trundled away from the quay it would be targeted by one of these young entrepreneurs. He would throw the sack on top, clamber up after it, scoop a few armfuls of coal into the sack, toss it overboard and hop down again. Then the coal was hauled down to the tenements in Sheriff Street, where it would find a ready market. Macker regularly supplemented his family’s meagre income in this way, but he misjudged his leap one day, caught his foot on the tailboard and went sprawling in front of an on-coming lorry.

His funeral, at which we provided a tense, tearful guard of honour, was a harrowing ordeal. His mother, enveloped in a black shawl, was distraught, inconsolable. She embraced each one of us in turn, sobbing all the while. "You know, Gerry, my poor Macker was dead before the ambulance arrived", she informed me tearfully, as she held my hands in hers. "And by the time the ambulance arrived", she added bitterly, "his little bag of coal had disappeared". But that was no surprise: waste not, want not, was no empty exhortation, it was how the world lived.

Nor could we afford to waste time on top of Djouce that night, huddling behind the largest of the Three Stones. We had to get down, and quickly, before we became too cold to move. I set off, steering by guess and by God, one arm across the face to give some relief to eyes and face from the stinging blast. We ticked off the old metal fence-posts as we moved along the ridge, but, when they ran out, we wandered off a bit as the ridge broadened. Some distance below the summit my path took us over a boggy pool: the pool was covered in ice, the ice was covered in snow. A couple of steps out and the ice broke leaving me up to my knees in icy water. Forgetting that Foddy was clinging to my tail, I surged forward, heading for the far bank, to howls of anguish from the rear as he and the others followed, willy-nilly.

I suppose the only good thing you can say about leaky boots is that they let the water out almost as fast as they let it in, and our boots did leak – bigtime. Mine were ex-Irish army boots, bought, for a hard-earned five bob, from a second-hand stall in Samson’s Lane, off Moore Street. I was very proud of them: they were considered serious gear, the mark of a dedicated mountainy man. They were much too big for me, of course, but this was considered an asset – I would grow into them. In the meantime I had lined them with cardboard and stuffed the toes with cotton-wool to give a better fit, and covered the soles with metal studs to prolong their life.

Foddy’s boots, on the other hand, came courtesy of the Evening Herald Boot Fund, a charitable organisation that distributed boots to needy children in the Dublin area every winter. Foddy, like many of his contemporaries in Mount Pleasant Buildings, would go barefooted from Easter through to October, at which stage he would be waiting hopefully for the boots to materialise. It was said that the boots bore an indelible logo, and that, under pressure from the Herald, the Dublin pawnbrokers had agreed not to accept them, but I never found out if this was true. These weren’t just Foddy’s hiking boots, they were his everyday footwear, his only footwear.

The wet stockings sagged further down around our ankles, and quickly became frozen in the sub-zero temperatures, forming an icy collar at the top of our boots, but we kept moving, there was nothing else we could do. And you know how it is when you are heading downhill: gradually, imperceptibly, conditions improve. The wind eased a little, the spindrift sank to knee height and moved with less speed, while the moon made brief, sporadic appearances. There were no trees, no plantations, no ride-lines or markers to guide us on our way but, as luck would have it, we struck the road a couple of hundred yards above the Pier Gates.

We hunkered down in the shelter of the wall by the gates for a well-earned break. I fished out a large sliced pan and dealt out two slices per head. With a flourish, Charlie, our gourmet, produced a pot of home-made blackberry jam (his mother had a fruit and vegetable stall in Camden Street). But it was no go: the jam was frozen solid and refused to budge. Undaunted, he dipped into his rucksack again and came up with a jam-jar full of sugar. We spooned it liberally over the dry bread, folded each slice over and crunched contentedly on our sugar sandwiches.

Then we hit the road again. I had abandoned the idea of approaching the cottage from the western side of the lough, as I figured the crossing of the Inchavore on icy boulders in darkness, and in our tired state would be a risky business. So, the dirt roads by Sleamaine it was. We had endured enough hardship for one night. On safe ground now, we marched along in a loose bunch, with Foddy safely ensconced in the centre, as we shepherded him along. We marched in silence, grateful for the shelter the hedges provided, and for the covering of snow that cushioned the hard surface, too tired, too sleepy to talk, the only sound the click, click, click of the icicles dangling from shorts and stockings.

When we arrived at the cottage I couldn’t open the door. The lock, which hadn’t been used for weeks, was frozen solid. I fiddled and fumbled with the big key, which was so cold that the metal stuck to my bare fingers, as though coated with glue, while the others shuffled about impatiently. I was afraid to apply too much pressure, for fear of breaking the key, so we checked the windows, to see if one of them might have been left open, but without luck. Then I remembered a trick my Da had shown me during the big freeze up of ‘forty-seven. I had the stump of a candle and some matches in my bag and I dug these out and lit the candle. Then we huddled around while I heated the key over the flame until it was almost too hot to handle. I stuck it back into the lock, gave it time to work it’s magic, and we were in.

We were all dab hands at lighting fires, a skill honed to perfection on many a windy hillside or damp ditch, but Charlie was our acknowledged expert and he soon had a fire blazing up the chimney. I took the axe outside, smashed the ice on the rain-barrel, filled my billycan and hung it on the crook over the fire. Then we took off our boots and lined them up on the hearth and hung our stockings, holes and all, in a row along the mantelpiece. We pulled the big settee over to the fire and sat with legs extended to the heat, our feet bleached white and wrinkled from hours in wet stockings, and watched as the icicles on our legs melted and pools of meltwater gathered on the stone floor.

The tea revived us temporarily and Foddy waxed lyrical about the difficulties we had encountered and the stories he would have to tell his Ma and siblings the minute he got home (his Da, an army man, had died of TB in the military hospital up in the Park). I could picture Foddy, pushing excitedly in through the front door, bursting with his news, but I knew his Ma – kindly, but hard-pressed, with a house-full of kids to look after – she would probably just tell him to stop blathering and get out of them mucky boots and stockings.

He fell asleep sitting there, his chin down on his chest, his feet and shins mottled pink from the heat of the fire, his big tin mug still half-full. We stretched him out gently on the settee, I got his blanket from my rucksack and wrapped it around him, pinning it up the side with the blanket pins. By the time I was finished the others had all made up their own blankets. By the time I was ready to snuff out the candle they were all asleep. Sleeping the deep, blissful sleep of the innocent.

So well they might. I hadn’t yet told them of the route I was planning for the return journey.