Sidelines

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2(March/April 2011), News, Volume 19

The times they are a-changing and Irish-America ain’t what it used to be. The archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, is upset that a statue of St Patrick that used to be in the sanctuary of Sacred Heart Church in Newark is now gracing a pub, Cryan’s Beef and Ale House. When the archdiocese closed Sacred Heart Church last June, the statue was returned to the Cryan family, who had originally purchased it for the church. ‘It means a lot to my family. It means a lot to the parishioners that come in here,’ Jim Cryan said. The appropriately named Jim Goodness, spokesman of the archdiocese, publicly protested about St Patrick ending up in a pub. Jim Cryan has agreed to move the statue but ‘it certainly won’t happen before St Patrick’s Day’. No problem drowning that shamrock, then.
In these times of economic hardship many turn for help to charitable organisations. Now Dublin’s oldest charity, the Sick and Indigent Roomkeepers’ Society, is in trouble itself. It can no longer afford the steep rents at 34 Lower Leeson Street and has had to move to the more reasonable accommodation offered a few doors up in No. 74. Although the collapse of the Celtic Tiger has probably left the roomkeepers of a few bankers and developers indigent, the society today is non-specific and will help anybody in financial trouble. They no longer hand out potatoes at the door, but other forms of assistance are available.
It has suddenly gone quiet along our coast, even in the densest fog, as the Commissioners for Lights and local harbour boards have decided to dispense with the foghorn. Lighthouses around the country will still send out their beams of light but the foghorns are all switched off. So many ships have sat-nav now that the foghorn is considered unnecessary. Hard luck, then, if you are a windsurfer or sea-angler lost in fog who doesn’t have hi-tech gizmos. More importantly, what about the romance, the poetry in hearing the moan of a horn ringing out through the fog? No room for romance in a satellite-guided world, it seems.

Charles Byrne, the ‘Irish giant’, was a major celebrity in 1780s London. Almost 8ft tall, the common folk and the gentry all paid to see him in his apartments. To avoid body-snatchers, Byrne wanted to be buried at sea when he died, but a certain Dr Hunter bribed the undertaker and got hold of the giant’s corpse. Today Byrne’s skeleton is on display in London’s Hunterian Museum. There is an upside to the tale in that scientists have been able to extract DNA from Byrne’s teeth and so establish that he suffered from gigantism owing to a mutation of the aryl hydrocarbon-interacting protein gene. Although born in County Tyrone, gene science has established that Byrne, like every other person with this condition, inherited it from a single distant common ancestor born 1,500 years ago.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of probably Ireland’s strangest railway. The Clogher Valley line existed for 55 years and was so odd that it featured in tourist guides to Ireland. While not a miniature railway, it had a very narrow gauge and specially built small locomotives to pull the carriages. It was a commercial line that carried goods and people up and down the County Tyrone valley on a track that ran through gardens, across fields, alongside the main road and even up the main streets of towns. In the 1920s the railway went into decline and its last hoorah was an outing of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. Men in full regalia sat alongside others in paper hats as they all sang along to rebel songs while the little train chugged through the countryside on a bright summer’s day. Ah! The good old days!
It is probably due a make-over after 800 years, so King John’s Castle in Limerick is closing for some redecoration. Shannon Development is already looking at paint samples and squares of fabric for the new ultra-modern, trendy look, and it’s rumoured that the Brennan brothers have been seen inspecting the castle. The €6m restoration project is due to be finished by 2012, the official anniversary of the completion of the castle.
The role of independent Ireland in World War II, otherwise ‘the Emergency’, is hotly debated, but Ireland did suffer hardship in these years and none more so than the merchant ships that carried vital cargoes across the war-torn seas. A new project has been established to commemorate the seafarers who died on Irish-registered vessels. The Irish Seamen’s Relatives Association are inviting anyone who lost someone at sea between 1939 and 1946 to contact them with their story. The idea is to set up a website and to publish a book of these stories as a kind of memorial to them. Anyone interested should contact Peter Mulvany at mulvanypeterie@yahoo.co.uk.
Political correctness gone mad, I hear you say. In the United States, NewSouth Books are publishing a new edition of Mark Twain’s classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer in a version acceptable to the modern reader. In other words, they have removed the ‘n’ word and replaced it with ‘slave’. While Tom Sawyer only used the ‘n’ word four times, that naughty Huck Finn and his companions used it 219 times. NewSouth Books say that Twain’s classic was in danger of being forgotten and unread if they had not taken this step, but do they have the right to alter the author’s work? Didn’t Twain employ the ‘n’ word to show up the ignorance and racism of those who used it and not to insult people?

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