Once, as steely-grey October cast her pallor, cold and sober, o’er the rustic Dublin landscape in the year of forty three, staring out beneath the awning of his house that autumn morning, bold Sir William Rowan Hamilton called his wife while making tea.
“My dear,” he said, in robust fettle, o’er the hissing of the kettle, “Let’s not spend this morning doing chores we both find so banal. Shall we visit Myles the miller, up above, beyond Clonsilla? Let us stroll there, you and I, beside the sweet and still canal.”
“I’ll go and change this flour-stained blouson,” (said his wife) “and put some shoes on. Cook can rustle up a luncheon to sustain us as we roam.”
Thus, upon that day so pleasant, laden down with jams and pheasant, Sir William and his buoyant lady set forth from their urban home.
Sir William, on his own admission, was a brilliant mathematician, darling of the Royal Academy, Master at far-famed Dunsink. “People’s problems,” he reported, “should be broken down and sorted. Mathematics holds the key, if only folk would learn to think.”
The only thing that ever troubled this great man, but lightly stubbled, was the oft repeated question, “Why the silly middle name?” Then he’d practise a deception, for he’d learned his own conception had occurred beneath this tree, as once he’d heard his father claim.
But this day, they left the hubbub of the northern city suburb, and marvelled as they smelt again the freshness of the country air. Through Cabra, heading west, they ambled, watching rabbits, as they gambolled through the fields that lined the borders of their leafy thoroughfare.
Neither spoke, but deeply pondered on life’s beauty as they wandered, while the creamy sun ascended into the October sky. Overhead a chaffinch whistled. On the bank a cygnet bristled. Arm in arm, the couple sauntered, carrying their pheasant pie.
Down past Ashtown Bridge they headed, past the hawthorn deep embedded; on past scenic Castleknock, where otters swam and pigeons cooed; past great groves of beech and chestnut, all the time they put their best foot forward, as the arbour cov’ring cast a very sombre mood.
By Coolmine they found a shady seat for William’s weary lady, and they picnicked, watching moorhens scuttle ‘cross the leaf strewn beck. Then, when they had both partaken of the pheasant, quail and bacon, both stood up, refreshed, to carry on their long, but worthwhile trek.
“Westward Ho!” Sir William hollered, as a pigeon, lightly collared, eyed him with a wary glance from high upon an oak-lined ridge. Smiling now, they strode together, buoyant in the clement weather, till they spied, beneath the trees, the grey stone of Clonsilla Bridge.
But, as they came upon it’s buttress, brave Sir William drew his cutlass, startled by unruly voices yelling hard from o’er their head. Up the inclined path they stumbled, as the raucous curses tumbled o’er the bridge’s head, to grip them tightly on their wary tread.
But when they gained the road, which twisted o’er the water, it consisted of a constant stream of traffic pouring o’er the parapet while, on either side, a massive crowd, not patient nor impassive, cried in anger at the drivers for their lack of etiquette.
Now and then, a blood-crazed urchin, through the constant traffic lurchin’, tried in utter desperation to dodge past the flowing tide. But before too long, a flying wheel would strike him, leave him dying on the dirty, dusty roadway ‘ere he gained the other side.
Then Lady Hamilton posed the question. “Why is there such great congestion? Can’t the drivers pause a while to leave the peasants pass on foot?”
“No,” replied her husband slowly. “’Tis a rudeness most unholy! Would a horse or two but leap ten feet below into the cut!
‘This bridge will not allow these peasants share it’s very narrow presence with these rattling horse-drawn coaches streaming on to Westmanstown. Thus the wealthy cross here simply, while the plebs, all pale and pimply, wait their turn in deep despair, with futile yell and murd’rous frown.”
Then this famous mathematician viewed again the great attrition as an algebraic equation to be worked out in his head. Width of bridge and speed of traffic, size of crowd with language graphic – all were factored in as either x or y or even zed.
However this numeric theorist couldn’t seem to get the merest handle on the formula required to solve this wretched sum.
Down the path he strode frustrated, information uncollated, while his wife in torment followed, countenance morose and glum. Back along the track he pounded in a temper quite confounded, back towards his urban mansion down the earthen path he sped.
Gone were thoughts of Myles the miller and his home beyond Clonsilla – all that filled his mighty brain were thoughts of x and y and zed.
Past Coolmine they blithely hurried, one possessed, the other worried, past the spot where they had laughed and chattered but an hour before; through the arching, cooling greenery they marched on, inured to scenery, her with tender, aching feet and him with sturdy lantern jaw. Castleknock was just a blur for him, and none the less for her, as onward, onward, ever onward, down the ochre lane they strode. Down past Ashtown Bridge they trotted, as Sir William planned and plotted, working out that long equation ‘pon the water-bordered road.
Then at Broombridge, by the creek, a cry went up from him, “Eureka!” The formula had been discovered in a flash of blinding light. With cook’s knife, he carved out quickly, on the stony bridgework slickly, the great quaternion inscription, lest its thought be put to flight.
One month on, he read a paper on the great Clonsilla caper, breaking down the thorny problem of the bridge’s right of way. Sadly, though he had not planned it, nobody could understand it, and the bridge remains quite untraversable by foot today.
Upon Broombridge, a plaque stands proudly to record the sojourn loudly, when this algebraic discovery spawned so many learnéd books. But further on, there’s sadly still a whitened fury at Clonsilla. Those on foot still run the gauntlet of the stream of cars and trucks.
The moral of this maudlin story may seem quite obtuse and hoary, but is not confined to those with agile minds or privilege – despite the finest reputations, complex algebraic equations never helped a single body cross the cursed Clonsilla Bridge.