Laytown, Bettystown and Mornington share a three-kilometre stretch of beach that makes up 40% of Co Meath’s short coastline (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
During my childhood and early teens, we regularly went for family holidays in Bettystown and Laytown in the early or mid-1960s. My father wanted to be both close to a golf course and within commuting distance of Dublin, and he appeared to be happier being close to the north Co Dublin villages of Portrane and Donabate, where my grandparents were married and where they are buried.
Then, while I was at school in Gormanston, I enjoyed walks on the beaches at Laytown, Bettystown and Mornington, and enjoyed the hospitality of school-friends and their parents in the area.
In the 1990s, I brought my sons to the races on the beach at Laytown and Bettystown. From childhood, I remember these races as a colourful event each year … this unique annual meeting has been held on the beach since 1876, and is the subject of a BBC documentary, Racing the Tide. But the year we went was also the year a horse lost his footing in the sand and was shot on the beach – we never went back to the races.
I was back on this long stretch of beach from Mornington through Bettystown to Laytown at the weekend, as our second experience of summer continues to bless us with warm sunshine. Laytown, Bettystown and Mornington, 50 km north of Dublin, share the three-kilometre stretch of beach that makes up 40% of Co Meath’s short coastline.
The row of cottages where we stayed in Bettystown in the early 1960s still stands (Photograph: Patrick Comerford
I started my beach stroll yesterday [Saturday] at Bettystown, which was known to the Victorians as Betaghstown. As children we were told that the Tara Brooch was found on this beach in 1850 in a box buried in the sand. In the 1960s, we had stayed in cottages and caravans in Bettystown, and much of the old village remains familiar: the row of thatched cottages where we stayed is still there, as is McDonagh’s thatched pub beside the caravan park.
The thatched cottages in Bettystown retain a familiar charm (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
In recent years, spiralling house prices in Dublin have seen Bettystown expand, with new housing estates and apartments meeting the need for affordable housing for commuters. But despite the changes, I can still recognise the thatched houses, McDonagh’s pub, the golf course and the Neptune, and remember the beach-front houses and shop where Pat’s supermarket is today. Next door to Pat’s, the Laytown and Bettystown Golf Club is celebrating its centenary this year. It was here that RJ Browne was coach to players such as Des Smyth and Darren Clarke.
Down on the beach, below Pat’s and the golf links, I was upset initially that Meath County Council fails to enforce its ban on cars parking on the north end of the beach at Bettystown. It disturbs the peace and tranquillity of this beautiful stretch of golden strand to have cars strung along the beach with the sound of “thump-thump music” beating out loudly from some cars, and to see baby wipes and nappies littered around other cars.
But as I strolled on past the golf links towards Mornington, the beach became quieter and the sun continued to shine down, with shimmers of silver rippling out along the water into the east. It was charming too to notice the diverse background of people taking a dip in the sea.
Walking on the beach between Bettystown and Mornington
Looking north towards Mornington, there were two towers. Were these the Maiden Tower and the Lady’s Finger? These twin towers date back to the late 16th century and were built at Mornington as navigational aids for ships entering the River Boyne.
Mornington’s Irish name, Baile Uí Mhornáin, means the Town of the Mariner or Fisherman. But the name has another interesting historical association: the first Earl of Mornington was the father of the Duke of Wellington, who was born in Mornington House, beside Merrion Square in Dublin.
After strolling back to Bettystown, I headed on south to Laytown, which was once known as Nynch or Ninch – from the Irish Inse – and which stands on the mouth of the River Nanny. The River Nanny’s tidal estuary has mullet, trout, eels, gobies and flounder – but no salmon. Local folklore says that Saint Patrick banished all the salmon from the river.
A blue glass bead of the early Christian period, which was found at the rath at Ninch West, is associated with Cú Chulainn’s charioteer, the legendary Láeg Mac Riangabra, King of the Chariot Drivers, who is said to have given his name to Laytown. The mound at the Ninch is said to be the tomb of Láeg or Lay and was excavated in 1982 and1983 by Professor Sweetman, who found two Iron Age burials.
Whatever the legends may say, Laytown has a history dating back to at least the 6th century AD. An archaeological dig has found early Christian graves of around 50 people and a Bronze Age enclosure. Among the artefacts found there was a Hiberno-Norse ring pin that may point to trade with the Vikings.
Like Bettystown, Laytown was once a tiny coastal village. But in the past decade or so, it too has seen a huge population and economic boom, and with it have come problems such as overcrowded schools.
Despite these changes, Laytown retains much of the Victorian charm I remember from my school days, with a number of interesting buildings. Alverno House, a detached five-bay, three-storey house, was built as an hotel around 1847 for travellers and tourists arriving in the resort on the new railway line. Now used as a public house, the scale of this former hotel, which is set back from the street, is unusual in Laytown. It is part of the architectural heritage of the area, as the railway station, which was built three years earlier in 1844. It was renamed Laytown and Bettystown in 1913, and is a delightful, traditional timber-clapperboard train station.
Facing out onto the beach, Victoria Terrace is a terrace of six two-bay two-storey houses built at the end of the 19th century. These sea-front houses, with their full-height canted bay windows, dominate the coastline at Laytown, and are typical of sea-facing terraces that became popular in the late 19th century.
The façade of the 19th century church has been retained as part of the modern parish church in Laytown (Photograph: Patrick Comerford
However, fom an architectural perspective, the most captivating building on the shoreline at Laytown, close to Victoria Terrace, is the Church of the Sacred Heart. The first church on this site was built in 1879, but was demolished in the 1970s to make way for a new parish church. The façade from the original 19th century church has been retained, but the new building is a 1970s circular-plan single room. Light shafts in the walls and the ceiling illuminate the interior of church. Behind the altar, a large window looks out to the sea, with a 20-ft wooden cross on the hill behind the window.
The foundation stone for the new church was blessed by Pope John Paul II at Knock 40 years ago in September 1979, and the church was blessed and opened in October 1979. But the architects incorporated into the new church the façade of the earlier church, with its yellow brick gable-fronted entrance and buttresses, set on a rock-faced limestone plinth. It has a pointed arch door opening and triple lancet windows with a limestone dressing.
The East Window of the parish church in Laytown looks out on the beach and across the Irish Sea (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
They must be deeply spiritual moments when the rising sun shines in from the Irish Sea through the large east window during early morning Masses, or the sea outside is wild and the waves are high on a winter’s Sunday morning.
In recent years, there have been proposals to transfer Mornington, Bettystown and Laytown from Co Meath to Co Louth, making them part of the expanding southern suburbs of Drogheda. But for the present they remain part of the short but charming coastline of Co Meath.
Unfortunately, my search for a restaurant of matching charm was less fruitful, and on the way back to Dublin last night I stopped off for dinner instead in Paparazzi on Strand Street in the north Dublin village of Skerries.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin.