Gold in the Streets. Lost and Found.


When I examined the inscription on the pump, I found to my horror, that Skerries was governed by Balrothery: Balrothery District Union. The rates were decided upon in the workhouse in Balrothery. At one time, the Baron of Balrothery assembled a parlement to meet at Balrothery, The Town of the Knights. Each knight was allocated a strip of land on which he grazed his horse when parlement was in session. The name persists in The Knights’ Fields. This ancient responsibility devolved onto Poor Law Commissioners, landlords and Grand Juries, who met at the workhouse. Picture the Dickensian scene of the governors dining upstairs while the poor languished in squalor below. It’s enough to make you go and take your pike from the thatch. To give them their due, they had pumps installed all over the barony to provide clean drinking water and gossip to the good people of Fingal. They invented parish-pump-politics. They provided a place where people might linger to exchange the news of the day.


If you lost something or found something, you could put a notice on the board at the post office, the small premises on the left of the picture. With luck,the owner would see the notice and claim the item. A post office gets a lot of traffic, foot-fall, as they say nowadays. It gets a lot of gossip and conversation. My brother found a gold watch. Like a good citizen he wrote a notice and asked permission of the formidable Miss Reilly, to place it on the board. He forgot about it. Mrs Grimes spotted it. She came to the house on her High Nelly bike. Even into her eighties she rode that bike, until her sons confiscated it and hung it up in the barn, out of reach. It was no small feat to cycle up the Dublin Road hill. I never enjoyed it. “Tom” she said, “I believe you found my watch.” “I did, Mrs Grimes,” replied the good citizen. “I’ll get it for you now.” He went inside. My older brother, a connoisseur of detective novels and police procedures, was standing at the door with his hands in his pockets. He noted the getaway High Nelly.   He raised his eyebrows. “Can you describe the watch, Mrs Grimes?”  The old gold watch scam.  Oldest trick in the book. She had her bike ready to scoot off down the hill at high speed. She told me about the episode forty years later and was still amused. Still had the watch too.

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Skerries stands on an aquifer, punctuated and punctured by wells and pumps. You might stop to put your mouth under a pump, preferably one of the big (Balrothery Union,) iron ones with the handle, to get a drink on a hot day. There was always a danger that a companion would swing on the handle and catch you with a sudden blast of water. It took skill and dexterity to get the pump to yield some water and keep going long enough to give you time for a drink. You had to work for it. The aquifer appears to advantage at the Kybe Pond, a nice place to linger. Sometimes,in wintry weather, it comes out to occupy the playing fields and wander about the streets.

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Nobody lingers at these things. Time is money. Since their arrival, they have put a curb on casual conversation in the streets. They have probably contributed to stress levels. Nevertheless they have some benefits. They have probably improved traffic flow. I doubt if anyone will ever sentimentalise them. We visit them regularly, of necessity. They seem to be immune to advertising and political posters, despite the footfall. Yet civic solidarity of a sort, survives. Sometimes a motorist will donate an unexpired ticket to a new  arrival. Us against The System. Probably illegal. I lost some important family keys. They should have been on my keyring. I discovered the loss late on Sunday night. I rang around. I went back to the shop that I had visited that afternoon. It was raining and dark. The parking place was empty. I prowled around, bent double in the light of the headlights. I found some cigarette butts and bottle tops. I found a half-eaten lollipop and a thousand bird droppings, all gleaming deceptively in the light. No luck. I went home, feeling cold and inept. It kept me from my sleep. I went down again in the morning. I had to buy a parking ticket. A gale was howling, driving the scurrying rain across the tarmac. The lollipop was still there. (Nah) The bird droppings were washed away. There is nowhere as bleak as a seafront in foul weather. I enquired in the shop if anyone had handed in some keys. The courteous young man had a look. There were bunches of orphaned keys behind the counter, but alas, not mine. He checked my Lotto ticket. No joy there either. I went back to the car. I noticed something on top of the ticket machine, a small irregularity against the dim morning light. Could it be? It was. Some considerate soul had found them and put them where the incompetent owner was most likely to return. The day changed. There was a gleam of light. I felt more kindly towards the ticket machine.

My little daughter said to me: “I wish I was Linda’s granny.” Linda’s granny was knocked down in the street by a young man running for a bus. She never recovered from the shock and walked, bent double, with the aid of a stick. She was a most friendly and good natured old lady, despite her infirmity. “Why would you like to be Linda’s granny?” “She found two gold watches on the pavement.”

Every cloud, as they say…. I wonder if she put a notice in the Post Office.

Water, water everywhere.


Milverton Quarry, at one time, employed forty stone-cutters. There is a photograph of them in the Lutyens castle on Lambay Island. They are perched on ledges and blocks of stone, just like the gannets and myriads of other seabirds, that inhabit that island. Their handiwork can be seen everywhere in the area. Every pavement was at one time, kerbed with slabs of Milverton limestone. The library, the belfry, Holmpatrick Church, the railway bridges, the harbour, the monument and the sea walls were hewn from this great hole in the ground. Tombstones were carved from it.  Old field walls wear their rough-dressed battlements, cut and blasted from the quarry.   The roads were paved with crushed limestone. The cottages were whitewashed with it.  The fields were spread with lime. It is in our bones. Brother Malachy, an extraordinary teacher, told us about his time in Mauritius. The boys were prone to broken bones, from even the slightest knock. ‘ They lacked calcium, you see, not like you lot.’  There was the occasional inference that our heads were solid bone, which explained a lot.

Strangely, for such an important place, it was largely unknown. It was surrounded by warning notices and an aura of danger. Its presence was signified by the reverberations of blasting. Men dusted with white, came and went, mostly on bicycles. A girl who worked in the office, went up and down our road, on her bike for fifty or more, years. She never changed, except that her hair became white, in solidarity with the men who worked the stone. You could have set your watch by her, if you had a watch. My sister was once offered a job there, not as a stone-cutter, but she declined, She went further afield, I am glad to say.

I knew a man who was buried alive by a blast, on the day that his son was born. I gather that he went back into a tunnel to check some charges that failed to explode–failed temporarily. He survived and had  the pleasure of meeting his son some time later. It’s still a pleasure to meet his son, be it said, almost sixty years later. I saw one massive blast, the biggest explosion in Ireland and we have had a few. I saw it on Movietone news a fortnight after it happened. A cliff began to tremble. It seemed to curdle and totter forward. It disappeared into dust. When the dust settled, a vast swathe of rock lay on the ground. I was alone in the house when it happened. I had the flu and was confined to bed, an iron framed bed with wire springs. There was a distant rumble. The house shook. The bed gave full value. And yes,the earth did move, if you want to know, but not in the way Hemingway meant it. It almost scared the flu out of me. I got up and dressed, ready for whatever might come next. A tsunami? The end of the world?

I stood at the gate as a child and marvelled at the machines, crawling about at the bottom of the pit. We ventured in once or twice on idle Sunday afternoons, when the place was quiet, but we never went very far. I recall the deep, black pond, a sinister place, deterrent enough to make us retreat. I looked down from the cliff, on bird-nesting expeditions, but vertigo kept me well back  from the edge. It’s all fenced off, these days. Only now, courtesy of Google earth, can I see it in its entirety. I was astonished to see that it has almost entirely filled with water. I can see down into the depths. It’s still scary, even from my spy satellite.

Mill pond new

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The same stream that filled the quarry, feeds the new millpond. It’s a bit anodyne. It would benefit from an island for the wildlife. The reeds have encroached. It’s functional and safe. All very good, but where are the toy boats, the cowboys and Indians, the pinkeen fishermen? The old millpond was marshy and menacing. An expedition through the head high weeds guaranteed the sight of reed warblers and pippits and a million stinging bugs. The new one lies behind a neat metal railing.

Duck pond

The third pond along the course of the stream is the winner. It is not fed particularly by the stream In fact it is at a higher level than the stream. It is a manifestation of the Kybe Well, slightly relocated. It comes from the aquifer that underlies Skerries. Dig down eleven feet in the lower part of the town and you will hit water, even in the driest weather. In wet weather the aquifer comes up to meet you. This was always the place of spectacular flooding and impromptu boating. The duck pond was an inspired addition to the town park. It succeeded immediately, attracting flocks of ducks, some swans and perpetually delighted children. Water hens live among the rushes. They come out, ignoring the bigger birds, and make their way across the surface, nodding and intent on their business. You can see a swan sitting on her nest a few feet away from the path. Any dog foolish enough to threaten her territory, will get short shrift. You will see a heron, looking like an abandoned umbrella, conducting his solitary vigil, his beady eyes watching for unwary frogs.  You will hear the constant prattle of well fed ducks.

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I put some water-lily roots into the pond, thinking that some local Monet would appreciate them in years to come. It was not to be. I went back, the next day, when the water had cleared, to see how they had settled. The ducks had nibbled every shoot, down to the root. If I had known they were so tasty, I would have eaten them myself. Monet will have to make do with bulrushes and cherry blossom.

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Today’s bread, today.