Monday, August 4, 2008

The legacy of Scaldwood

I was waiting in the barbers in Ongar recently and among the reading material was an ancient manuscript purporting to document the true history of the establishment of townlands in the Dublin 15 area. Blowing off the dust, I opened it carefully and noted that it was dated MDCLXXVII, which to the uninitiated means it even pre-dated numerals and was thus Very Old.
Long, long ago, it seems, a vast, deep, impenetrable forest covered the land between the River Liffey and the North Pole, or at least as far as the Tolka River. This forest was called Scaldwood and it was marked on maps with terrifying legends such as “Here be beasties and creepy-crawly things.” Within the forest lived wolves and bears and hedgehogs and all manner of bloodthirsty creatures, though it is unclear how anybody knew this, seeing as nobody had ventured within its green-leafed canopy.
Scaldwood was a name that struck terror into people’s hearts and often other parts of their anatomy as well. An early version of the “Teddy Bear’s Picnic” for example – used as a lullaby for young impressionable children on the north side of Dublin - detailed how going down to the woods today would doubtless mean getting your head bitten off by a rabid wolf.
And then in the seventeenth century, there appeared on the scene a band of young men who did not know the meaning of the word ‘fear.’ Of course there were a lot of other words they didn’t know the meaning of, for Samuel Pepys hadn’t brought out his famous dictionary at that time.
There was Leopold Blanchard, strong, fair and the bearer of the most magnificent moustache in western Christendom; Randy Luttrell, the movie star; Denis Diswell who, legend had it, could perform cartwheels with both hands tied behind his back; the four amigos, Billy Blake, Hughie Hunt, Harry Hart and Willy White, who had long dreamt of building four towns linked by a semi-circular distributor road; Igor Carpenter, the aptly-named carpenter; Alan Ash, the railway buff; Peter Pellett, Fintan Phibble, Wally Holly, Kieran Kelly, Tony Tyrell and the peculiarly named Warren Warren.
This troupe of gay young blades used to meet in the Undamaged Wall (now the Hole in the Wall) pub on Blackhorse Avenue, where they would drink and carouse and play dominos. Occasionally they would play Spin the Bottle and on one occasion, Alan Ash wagered Leopold Blanchard he “dared not venture a half a league into Scaldwood.”
Reliable witnesses say that all faces turned from the telly at these words and silence fell. Then all faces fell and silence turned from the telly. After what seemed like a minute but was more likely sixty seconds, Blanchard spoke.
“Ha!” he quoth. “I will venture into Scaldwood my lily-livered dandy. Not only will I venture therein but I will travel to the very middle and there construct a town with a wondrous shopping centre.”
“And I shall hack down a portion of forest and construct a whole new estate with management companies!” roared Tony Tyrell.
“And I shall clear a large space and make a fine golf course,” said Wally Holly, brandishing his fork magnificently.
“And I shall rezone a large portion of the forest for housing and maybe a secondary school,” added Kieran Kelly.
“And we shall build our towns and link them with a semi-circular distributor road!” cried the four amigos, clutching each other awkwardly to their bosoms.
When word got around about this foolhardy venture, the city fathers consulted with the city mothers and declared that “whatsoever portions of Scaldwood were cleared and towns constructed, these could be named after the perpetrators,” a handsome declaration made in the expectation that none of the fifteen would ever be seen again.
At 9.17 on a Wednesday morning (the exact date has been lost in the mists of time), after a hearty breakfast of Coco Pops, Leopold Blanchard gave his magnificent moustache a final twirl and led his fourteen companions into the notorious Scaldwood. A large crowd cheered them on, shouting encouraging words about being ripped from head to toe by tigers. Wives and children sobbed bitterly, even those who weren’t related to the men.
And that was the last that anyone saw or heard of the gallant band for five years. Lonely light-putter-outers on the fringes of the forest sometimes thought they heard strange sawing noises coming from the interior as they trudged their weary way home at midnight. And Captain Llewellyn in the Ordnance Survey Office in the Phoenix Park repeatedly wrote home to his wife that “I have strange dreams that I hear concrete mixers at work in the forest, even though they will not be invented for another 250 years.”
And then one day, a massive spruce fir came crashing down at the perimeter of Scaldwood and fifteen bearded but unbowed men marched out, hatchets on their shoulders and a look of triumph in their eyes. Leopold Blanchard, his moustache more magnificent than ever, unscrolled a sheet of parchment and, in a large, powerful voice, proclaimed to a passing small boy that Scaldwood had been well and truly spanked and that henceforth no-one need ever fear its terrible name.
When word got around about the men’s return, there was a clamour to visit the townships that the men had created. Randy Luttrell gleefully showed visitors around his castle and charged them well for dining in his restaurant. Denis Diswell performed handless cartwheels for amazed onlookers around the new estates named after him and Alan Ash proudly showed people around his railway station.
But the most awe and reverence was saved for Leopold Blanchard and the bustling High Street complete with church, pubs and bank that he had constructed. A site had also been reserved for a shopping centre, he told the press conference, with work expected to begin in the next 300 years or so.
And this was how the Greater Blanchardstown area first evolved, hewn from impenetrable forest by fifteen strong men and true who spat in the face of the danger and stuck their tongues out at peril. Today all that remains of Scaldwood is two square yards of woodland in the back garden of 73, Lohunda Avenue. A survey conducted in 2002 reported that “there appears to be no wolves, bears or other wildlife of any significant size currently surviving within.”
As I was ushered to the chair and draped in voluminous cloths that failed utterly to keep any stray hairs from getting down the back of my neck, my mind was filled with the great and heroic deeds of those brave men who risked all to give me a safe place to have a haircut.
And I suddenly felt very humble.