Monday, 28 December 2009

A visit to Lusk and a walk on the beach in Skerries

The moon above the beach in Skerries on Sunday afternoon ... these beach walks in Skerries are good for my physical well-being and my spiritual health (Photograph: Patrick Comerford 2009)

Patrick Comerford

On Sunday morning, I was in Christ Church Cathedral for the Cathedral Eucharist. After all the wonderful services and liturgies in the lead-up to Christmas, this was a very quiet Eucharist, celebrated by the Dean, the Very Revd Dermot Dunne.

Reserved ... just for me (Photograph: Patrick Cometrford, 2009)

Someone had placed a reserved sign for me on a cone in the parking place on the south side of the chapter house normally reserved for the canon-in-residence. But the canon-in-residence and preacher this Sunday was the Dean’s Vicar, Canon Mark Gardner, who is about to move to the Saint Patrick’s Cathedral Group of Parishes.

The congregation was small and, because there was no choir, there was seating for everyone in the chapter stalls, while the clergy took our places in the sanctuary. After coffee in the crypt, I headed off to Skerries for lunch and a much-needed walk on the beach. But on the way I stopped for the first time in the village of Lusk, four miles north of Swords, to look at the former Church of Ireland parish church, which was closed exactly 50 years ago this week and which now houses Lusk Heritage Centre.

A towering church

The former Church of Ireland parish church towers like a mighty castle above the village of Lusk (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

The former parish church in Lusk towers like a mighty castle above the village, and the buildings on the site include 19th century church, the ancient round tower and a mediaeval belfry. Together, they form a unit, although they were built over a period of about 1400 years.

The round tower at Lusk is the only surviving building from a monastery founded about the year 450 by Saint Mac Cuillinn. The site is also associated with Saint Maurus. Saint Maculin is reputed to have either lived or been buried in a cave, which may explain the name Lusk, which is derived from the Gaelic word Lusca meaning a cave or underground chamber. The annals refer to the death in 497 of Saint Mac Cuillinn, who is described as both Abbot and Bishop of Lusk.

Cassan, a learned scribe who was known as the chronographer of Lusk, was the Abbot of Lusk when he died in 695. In 695 or 696 a grand synod was convened at Lusk by Saint Adamnanus, at which all the principal prelates of the Ireland were present.

Although the round tower is not the tallest in Ireland, it has eight storeys and a basement, which is more than any other round tower. But the size of the round towers did not defend Lusk against successive waves of attackers and invaders, both Irish and Viking.

The monastery was plundered and destroyed by the Vikings in 827, 835 and burned again in 856, when the monastery and town of Lusk were razed in a fire. Lusk was attacked by the neighbouring Irish in 1053, in 1089, the Irish burned down the church again with 180 people inside. In 1135, Lusk Abbey and town were burned and the surrounding countryside of Fingal was laid waste by Donal Mac Murrogh O Melaghlin in revenge for the murder of his brother, Prince Conor of Meath.

In mediaeval times, the parish consisted of a rectory and vicarage: the rectory was divided into two portions, one was held by the Archdeacon of Dublin by the Precentor of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, the other by the Treasurer of the cathedral, and each as Prebendary of Lusk, would appoint t their own Vicar of Lusk.

The mediaeval Prebendaries of Lusk probably never visited the parish, leaving the pastoral and liturgical work to their vicars. Those prebendaries of Lusk included Walter Scamel, who became Bishop of Salisbury in 1284, and James de Hispania (of Spain), a nephew of Queen of Eleanor of England.

Mediaeval embellishments

Because Lusk was plundered and burned so many times, the only remnant of the early monastic foundation is the Round Tower. The round tower is about 27 metres high and retains its original conical cap. There are nine storeys including the basement. The flat-headed doorway is now less than a metre above ground level.

The ancient Round Tower in Lusk is attached to a square tower built in the 15th or 16th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

The Round Tower is attached to a square tower built in the 15th or 16th century with three matching round towers at its corners. This belfry is thought to date from about 1500. The round tower was cleverly incorporated into the design of the belfry with three corner turrets and the round tower making the fourth. Although built against the round tower, it is obvious that the round tower and the belfry are separate from each other.

As the belfry was being built, the Precentor of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Canon Thomas Rochfort, took an unusually hands-on approach to his responsibilities as Rector of Lusk. In 1502, he donated a large alabaster high altar to the church, with three images – one of Christ, placed in the centre, with Saint Maculin of Lusk on his right and Saint Patrick on his left. The church also had an altar dedicated to Saint Catharine.

In front of the altar in the south aisle was the elaborate 16th century double effigy of Sir Christopher Barnewall and his wife Marion Sharl (1589). The other tombs in Lusk included James Bermingham (1527), with his effigy in chain armour, although these are now said to be in the belfry.

‘Decayed and ruinous’

At the Visitation of 1615, there were reports of the “Church and Chancel in good repair.” By 1630, however, Archbishop Lancelot Bulkeley reported that “the Church for the most part is decayed and ruinous, the Chancel is in remarkably good repair, and will be made better this summer.” In addition, he found that “all the parishioners were recusants, and none come to church except the Lord Chief Baron and his family, and a few more.”

By the 17th century, it appears the Precentor and the Treasurer were able to agree on appointing one and the same person as Vicar of Lusk, and the Vicars of Lusk were often also Vicars of Donabate or of Baldongan.

From 1780 to 1788, the Vicar of Lusk was Joseph Stock, who later played a key role in the 1798 Rising as the Bishop of Killala who was taken prisoner by the French troops who landed in Co Mayo.

While Stock was Vicar, the antiquarian and writer Austin Cooper visited Lusk in 1783 and noted that the round tower was in good condition, although it had no floors or ladders at that time. However, Cooper also noted that the church was too large for the tiny congregation in Lusk.

Inside, two long aisles were separated by a series of seven pointed arches. But these arches were later filled up with masonry, and the eastern portion of the south aisle was the only part used for services, while almost all the windows in the rest of the church were closed up, leaving the whole of the north aisle in almost total darkness. Cooper said the north aisle “was a waste, only used as a burial place in the same manner as the churchyard; consequently it is all rubbish, bones, skulls, etc., the church is only preserved entire by a good roof covering the whole.”

Literary connections

The Echlin tomb, with an epitaph borrowed from Alexander Pope, stood inside the walls of the older, larger church in Lusk (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

You can estimate how large the original monastic and mediaeval church was by standing at the graves in the churchyard of Sir Robert Echlin (1699-1757) of Kenure House, at nearby Rush, and his wife Elizabeth (1704-1782). The Echlins bought their estate from the Butlers of Ormond, and Sir Robert Echlin, who married Elizabeth Bellingham in 1727, settled in Kenure two years later in 1729. Robert died died in 1757, and his wife, Elizabeth died in 1782, a year before Cooper’s visit. Their grave was once inside the church but now stands outside in the churchyard.

Elizabeth Echlin was an important 18th-century literary figure in Ireland. She was the correspondent of Samuel Richardson and the author of an alternative ending to Richardson’s Clarissa (1757-1748). Her husband’s epitaph, which she composed in 1759, reads:

Here rests an honest Man without pretence,
Blest with plain Reason and with sober Sense,
Calmly he look’d on either Life and here
Saw nothing to regret or there to fear.
From Natures temp’rate feast rose satisfyd
Thank’d Heav’n that he lived, and that he dy’d.


The lines of this epitaph were appropriated by Lady Echlin from two of Alexander Pope’s best epitaphs, the first two lines from that on a Mr Corbett, and the last four from that of a Mr Elijah Fenton.

The end of a church

In the great storm of 1839, the roof described by Cooper was blown off the church, and the church became a gaping ruin. On 8 December 1845, parishioners of Lusk were ordered to go to church in Balrothery Church because Lusk Church was in ruins.

However, after a gap of about eight years, the church was pulled down, and a smaller church in the Gothic or early English style was built in 1847 against the east wall of the belfry as the new parish church, using materials from the ancient abbey church. During building, workers found the coffin plate of Roman Patrick Russell, Catholic Archbishop of Dublin during the reign of James II.

The new church was licensed for public worship on 13 October 1847, and two years later the canons of Saint Patrick’s transferred their incomes from the parish to the Vicar of Lusk.

The floors and ladders in the round tower were fitted in the 1860s, along with a wooden and cement roof by the Revd Dr William Reeves, who was Vicar of Lusk from 1857 to 1865. He also filled up a breach in the second storey that led to the square mediaeval bell tower, and possibly another at the level of the belfry battlements. Reeves was a much-published church historian and later became Dean of Armagh and Bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore.

Kenure or Rush was joined to Lusk in 1894, and they were united with Donabate in 1946. However, Kenure was transferred to Holmpatrick and Balbriggan, and Lusk Church was finally closed after Divine Service fifty years ago on the last Sunday in December, 1959.

The church now houses the Lusk Heritage Centre, and the belfry houses an exhibition on mediaeval churches of North County Dublin. The key to the round tower is held nearby, and I must try to see inside both the church and the towers some day.

Lunch and a beach walk

Pasta Pizza ... lunch on Sunday afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

As I headed on to Skerries, it was only 1.30, but the half moon had already risen and was high above the islands off the coast. My favourite café in Skerries, the Olive, was closed, and instead I had lunch in Pasta Pizza on Strand Street.

Then it was time for that much-longed-for beach walk. The centre of Skerries may still have been snoozing off the effects of Christmas shopping, eating and drinking, but a lot of people were on the beach walking off those effects and clearing their heads.

The beach was dry, the sand was compact, the sky was as blue as a summer’s day, and a half-moon was clearly visible on Sunday afternoon in Skerries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Despite the cold, wet weather we’ve been having for a long time, I have never seen the beach in Skerries as dry as it was yesterday afternoon, and the sand was firm and tightly packed. In crisp clear light, the islands were cut out in cardboard-like relief, and from Red Island it was possible to see as far as the Mountains of Mourne.

The setting sun casting its light across Skerries Harbour late on Sunday afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Then it was back around the Lifeboat station to the Harbour, along by the north strand, where the setting sun was casting a golden-brown hue on everything, and on to the Obelisk and into Strand Street to pick up the papers in Gerry’s and a few bottles of wine to bring to last night’s party in the Poultons.

The rising moon could be glimpsed through the trees behind and behind the spire of Holmpatrick Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

As I was leaving Skerries, I could glimpse the rising moon behind the spire of Holmpatrick Church, while from the churchyard the windmills were clearly visible even though dusk was settling. I headed back along the coast to Rush, back into Lusk, and through Donabate onto M50 and home before heading off once again in the evening to the Rectory in Killiney.

These beach walks in Skerries are good for my physical well-being and my spiritual health. Over the past weeks, the effects of sarcoidosis on my joints have left me with pains and cramps in my legs at night, and I often wake short of breath. But I still know in Skerries that sarcoidosis can never deprive me of the pleasures of life. I may have sarcoidosis, but sarcoidosis will never have me.

The windmills in Skerries seen from Holmpatrick churchyard as dusk was settling (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)>br />