Monday, 4 May 2009

An afternoon stroll along the beach in Skerries

The harbour and seafront at Skerries ... Stoop Your Head is to the right (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Patrick Comerford

In Flann O’Brien’s book, The Dalkey Archive, Skerries is the location for a meeting between the narrator and James Joyce. The narrator has heard a rumour that Joyce has returned from continental Europe and is working in a small country pub. He tracks him down to a place on the outskirts of Skerries, but Joyce denies all knowledge of “that filthy book” Ulysses.

I had lunch this afternoon in one my favourites pubs in Skerries, Stoop Your Head. The pub has won many awards for its food, and has a fine view out onto the harbour, but I met neither Myles nor Joyce there this afternoon.

After lunch, I strolled down the pier, back across Red Island, down onto the main beach, and through the town, along to the beach behind Quay Street. Generations of Comerfords once lived in Quay Street, Skerries, but I have never been able to establish whether they are related to my own family. (See http://comerfordfamily.blogspot.com/2008/02/comerford-19-comerford-of-balbriggan.html )

The harbour and seaside town of Skerries is about 30 km (20 miles) north of Dublin city centre, and is a charming and attractive fishing town, with two long sandy beaches.

The name Skerries comes from the Norse Skere, indicating a small coastal island, but Skerries has more than one island. Indeed, there are at least five or six islands off the coast, including Shenick Island, Saint Patrick’s Island, Colt Island, Red Island and Rockabill. In fact, Rockabill is two islands, the Rock and Bill, and they have the largest numbers of breeding Roseate Terns in Europe and a lighthouse. The Martello Tower on Shenick Island is one of the many Martello towers built along this part of the coast during the Napoleonic wars. Red Island, which also has a Martello Tower, was once a holiday camp but is now a park, overlooking the rocks of Skerries, and has captivating sea views and a children’s playground.

It is said that Saint Patrick landed on Saint Patrick’s Island in the year 432 AD and began his mission to Ireland here. The island is also known locally as Church Island.

A local legend says that when Saint Patrick left the island one day to go shopping in Skerries, some local people from Skerries rowed over to his island where he had a goat tied up for milk. They stole the goat, brought it back and ate it. When the saint returned he was furious, and bounded with a great leap from his island across to Red Island. He quizzed the people, but they denied their theft. And so he took away their powers of speech, leaving them to bleat like goats until they eventually admitted their crime.

According to the Annals of Inisfallen, Saint Mochonna later founded a monastery on Saint Patrick’s Island. The monastery was plundered by the Vikings in 797 AD during one of their earliest raids on Ireland. Later, the Vikings settled in the area, and King Sitric of Dublin refounded the monastery on Church Island in 1120, dedicating it to Saint Patrick.

Archbishop Malachy of Armagh called a synod on Saint Patrick’s Island in 1148 to settle differences between the Irish Church and the Pope. The synod was attended by 15 bishops and 200 priests and other clergy.

By the mid-13th century, the monks found the island unsuitable for their monastery, and in 1256 they moved the monastery from the island to the mainland with the permission of Archbishop Henry de Londres, creating the new monastery of Holmpatrick. In time, the monastery began to join up with fishing village of Skerries to form the heart of the town as we know it today. To this day, the Church of Ireland parish church is known as Saint Patrick’s and the parish retains the name of Holmpatrick.

King Henry VII gave permission in 1496 for the Prior of Holmpatrick to build a pier at the Port of Holmpatrick or Skerries. After the Reformation, the monastery of Holmpatrick and its lands passed to Thomas Fitzpatrick, and in 1605 the manor and lands of Holmpatrick, along with the town of Skerries, were acquired by the Earl of Thomond.

The last Earl of Thomond sold the manor and lands of Holmpatrick, including the town of Skerries, to the Hamilton family of Hacketstown in 1721. That family laid out the present town of Skerries as we know it today, with two long streets – Strand Street and Church Street.

The Hamilton Monument in the town centre of Skerries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

A monument in Strand Street commemorating James Hans Hamilton, the local landlord and MP who died in 1863, is a reduced-scale replica of the Wellington Monument in the Phoenix Park, Dublin. His daughter-in-law, Lady Victoria Wellesley, was a granddaughter of the Duke of Wellington. When her husband, Ion Trant Hamilton (1839-1898), was made a peer in 1897, he took the title of Lord Holmpatrick.

The Skerries Mills have been restored in recent years by Fingal County Council as an amenity and tourist attraction. These mills include two fully restored and working windmills, a watermill and a museum and coffee shop. They may be worth a visit another afternoon as the days begin to stretch out.