What makes us who we are? As a historian, I sometimes think back to those packages that arrived from Godmother Mary every Christmas without fail.
The first included three strips of metal, a casting ladle, a tub of talcum powder and a black mould that smelled like a rubber tyre.
The process was simple. Snip some metal into the ladle and frazzle it upon something hot until it melts into a mercurial blob. Pour blob into a talced-up mould, count to 300, open mould et voilà … one silvery warrior in the palm of your hand.
Many years later, I learned that these metal creations were soldiers and officers from the Seven Years War.
The first to muster were a Prussian musketeer and a Danish grenadier.
The next year, I received a Russian guardsman and a Scottish drummer boy.
And then came mounted cavalry, standard bearers, artillery men, fusiliers, cuirassiers and infantry galore.
Some were French, others English, still more were Austrian and Hanoverian.
And yet, coolest of all, they were all Irish. Or at least the company that made them was based in Macroom, County Cork, where it continues to this day.
‘Prince August’, the company name, was – and is – emblazoned on every metal bar.
I never had enough of this metal, a composite of tin, bismuth and lead. The lead caught my eye though. A chunk of my family home was dismantled in the 1950s, leaving a shed full of lead gutters from the old roof.
I set to work, snipping small slices of abandoned gutter into my casting ladle and duly created one of the most misshapen armies the world has known.
Every soldier was limbless or half-headed or too drunk to stand up straight. Their rifles snapped, their swords bent, their trumpets shrivelled.
Their horses were likewise rarely born with legs or rump.
In my boyhood, all of my warriors came to life the moment I coloured in their uniforms and weaponry with acrylic paints and a synthetic brush.
A few dabs of red paint on my luckless gutter-folk made both man and horse look as credible as the poor wounded souls who littered any battlefield after a war in those grim old days.
My armies fought so many battles that I was both a committed pacifist and a committed historian by the age of 15. Thank you, Godmother Mary.