The Tree of Knowledge – Maurice Curtis

At southern end of Harold’s Cross Park, just outside its railings, an ancient chestnut tree was located for hundreds of years and until quite recently. A concrete seat encircled its base  and provided much comfort for weary travellers or for the not so weary, but who had plenty of time to discuss matters of some or no importance. This tree was known as the Tree of Knowledge such was the wisdom that seem to emanate from those resting there, a wisdom that normally didn’t reside in those individuals. Over time, it was felt that the tree had certain properties that seemed to transfer to the sitters, thus giving them the appearance and sound of noble elders of the community. These elders, known as the Elder Conkers, in their new-found wisdom, were quite happy to adopt the mantle of responsibility thrust upon them. They became poets, politicians and philosophers who at times seemed to be evolving into statues, since the same characters would be seen on the bench all day, every day. They would of course be only too happy to join the pantheon of greats that lived in the area. The consensus among them was that they had, unfortunately, left their quills behind. They also agreed that, ‘there are those that write, and there are those that speak in volumes’ and they preferred to be in the latter category. They puffed on their pipes, leant back against the old chestnut tree and gazed as the trams passed by or the ‘human fly,’ as the young Lukie was called, scaling the embankment just across from them at no.190.

Any matter put to them was ruminated upon with the help of a number of pipes, called ‘doodeens’. Moreover, if someone generously slipped any of the elders a bottle of stout, preferably Stowshus Extra, a satisfactory answer to any problem would be guaranteed.

If you wanted to know the best way to climb up to the Hellfire Club, directly up Montpelier Hill, which was the shortest route, or a gradual circuitous route, the longest, they would advise accordingly, considering all the salient details, your age, height, strength, experience and general attitude. Or if you wanted to know about when the Hurdy Gurdy man, the Dulcimer man or the One-Man Band were last seen in Harold’s Cross, they would know. Likewise, with Jack-the-cockle man who used to appear in the area on aSaturday evening guaranteeing fresh cockles for supper. Mad Charley used to walk in his bare feet and loved to dance for a piece of currant cake. The elders would tell about the Dog Woman who owned half a dozen dogs but was deaf as a dead dog. They knew where Canon Brady kept his stuffed hare and why a bald man should have one in the first place. If someone asked about Hell’s Lane, they would just point across the road, down from the Geranium House. Enquirers often wanted to know the whereabouts of the Bogey (Police) Barracks. They would reply, ‘which one? The little or the big?’. ‘Over there, beside the entrance to Mount Jerome’.

Sneaky questions were often directed their way. One such question related to the oldest pub in the area. ‘Oh, long gone to some extent’ was the reply. ‘And which one had you in mind, now. Was it the 17th century one called the Cat and Bagpipes or the Old Grinding Young?’ Someone always wanted to know where the Bird’s Nest was, yet not expecting a reply. ‘Well, if you look above your head you will definitely find one, but if not is it the Quakers you are interested in, then?’ ‘Well if so, the answer to your question is that old house next door to Healy’s grocers. It was an orphanage for Protestant children until not so long ago. Now, does that satisfy you?’ Hen and Chicken Lane, later Mount Drummond Avenue, always came up. The Emmet Dairy at the end of the avenue derived its name from its proximity to the former hiding house of Robert Emmet before he was captured.  Numerous discussions continued as to whether or not this was Mrs Palmer’s house or was it the smaller one around the corner. The whereabouts of Robert Emmet’s missing head was a frequent question and as many possible solutions were offered as one required.

They could also tell you the flow of the Swan and the Poddle rivers underneath Harold’s Cross, where and whether they were culverted and where the Stone Boat that never sank, which divided the flow of the Poddle, was located. Likewise, they knew who was murdered from Armstrong Street during the Civil War and where he was murdered. If you asked, ‘where is he buried?’, you would be told, ‘he’s with O’Leary in the grave’, in Glasnevin Cemetery.

That the most famous bagpipe player in all Ireland lived in the area did not bother them at all. ‘Leave it to Rowsome’ is all they would say. If you wanted to know if Casimir Road was called after Countess Markievicz’s husband or Father Casimir from Mount Argus, they would know. Someone might ask for the whereabouts of the Little Tin Church and you would be directed to the Rosary Church. And if you were looking for ‘a good Samaritan’, they would point you to the stained-glass window of the big church beside the entrance to Mount Jerome.

Excerpt from  PLAYING WITH SKULLS – A DUBLIN CHILDHOOD. Originally published by the Liffey Press in 2017. Re-published by the Old Dublin Press, 2018.