16 March 2011

Beach walks in Skerries and Spiritual Refreshment

On the lengthy beach at the South Strand at Skerries, the sand is packed and deep-coloured throughout the winter months but turns to golden hues in the sunshine of spring and summer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

For the past few years, I have had an almost-weekly pleasure of walking the beach in the small fishing villages of north Co Dublin, so I was familiar with Donabate and Portrane and the pleasures of walking the beaches and cliffs there when we went there last year for our Ash Wednesday retreat.

This year, we spent Ash Wednesday in Skerries. Once again, it offered us opportunities to take time out, to walk the beaches of an old fishing village, to enjoy its harbour and its cliffs, and to end the day with the Eucharist in the local parish church.

I brought a group of people working at the primates’ meeting in January to one of my favourite restaurants in Skerries at the end of January. But it was late, they were tired, and no-one joined me for a walk on the beaches of Skerries or around its harbour.

Skerries has two beaches, a harbour, and an island joined to the town by an isthmus at the Sailing Club, which was the venue for our retreat. A Celtic monastery associated with Saint Patrick was first located on the islands off Skerries, although the name Skerries comes from the Danish words skere (rocks or a reef), and ey (an islet or small island).

On the lengthy beach at the South Strand, the sand is packed and deep-coloured throughout the winter months but turns to golden hues in the sunshine of spring and summer, when the sun casts a golden, shimmering light on the sea and the beach. From the South Strand, it is easy to imagine you could swim out to the islands of Skerries, including Saint Patrick’s, Shenick, Colt Island and Rockabill.

Up on Red Island, there are views as far as the Mourne Mountains on a sunny day. Looking back, the windmills of Skerries, the spire of Holmpatrick Church and the tower behind the church are ever-present, graceful features on the skyline.

At the North Strand, the beach is small, but when the tide is out it is worth taking a stroll and enjoying the tranquil views of Skerries Harbour (Photograph; Patrick Comerford

Strolling from Red Island down to the Harbour and the North Strand, the beach is small. But when the tide is out it is worth taking a stroll and enjoying the tranquil views of Skerries Harbour.

At the end of the day, we strolled back down the length of the South Strand to Holmpatrick Parish Church, a gothic revival, pre-disestablishment church built in 1867. It has an ornate interior, with neo-mediaeval decoration, and interesting stained glass windows, especially those on the balcony.

The church also has some memorial tablets from an older church that stood nearby. One describes James Hamilton of Holmpatrick as a “gentleman who during a long and most active life displayed that zealous energy and ingenious integrity that forms a useful and virtuous man … He died the 20th of October 1800, in the 73rd year of his age … Of the uncommonly numerous offspring of thirty six children he was survived by eight sons and eight daughters.”

I think he gave new meaning to “zealous energy”! Hamilton’s descendants include Richard Branson, but with his “uncommonly numerous” 36 children born over 200 years ago, Hamilton must be the ancestor of thousands upon thousands of people living in Ireland today.

Behind the church stand the ruins of an earlier church built in 1722 by the Hamilton family after they acquired Holmpatrick from the Earls of Thomond in 1720. When the church was demolished in the 1860s, the square tower was left standing – supposedly as a landmark for ships, although it is also a reminder of the mediaeval monastic past of this site.

Local lore says that when Saint Patrick was expelled from Wicklow he moved to Saint Patrick’s Island off Skerries in 432 AD. Legend says that one day, while Saint Patrick was on shore buying groceries, the people of Skerries rowed over to his island where he kept a goat for milk, stole the goat, took her back to the mainland and ate her. When Saint Patrick returned he was angry, and with one great step he bounded from his island to Red Island. There he questioned the local people, and when they denied their theft he took away their powers of speech. They could only bleat like goats, until they eventually admitted their crime.

It is said that on Red Island there is still a mark on the rock that is nothing less than Saint Patrick’s footprint. Can you believe it? I have failed to see the saint’s footprint on Red Island during my walks in Skerries. If you ever visit Skerries have a look out for it … and may your silences be for different reasons.

Skerries ... a place for spiritual silences and reflection (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay and these photographs were first published on 16 March 2011 in the Spring 2011 edition of CITI Review, Church of Ireland Theological Institute e-magazine.

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