Palimpsest. A century of North Strand and Hoar Rock, Skerries.


A palimpsest is a manuscript, usually parchment, rubbed clean of writing by scraping with a blade, chalk or pumice, on which later writing has been superimposed. In many cases the traces of the earlier text survive, adding layers of interest for the reader. If you were lucky enough to inherit a school workbook from an older sibling, you may remember the joy of finding the traces of the rubbed-out answers, still readable in certain lights  and from certain angles. Not great for your understanding of the problem but a great saving in time and mental exertion. Publishers realised that this was a great incentive for teachers and diligent parents to change the books regularly. The rest of us were content to go with the flow in the weary hours between teatime and bed time. Maybe we fooled ourselves into thinking that we had produced offspring of preternatural sagacity and ability. There were no inherited workbooks when I was in school. I still find arithmetic a challenge.(What is the cost of four hundredweight of coal at three pound, six and eight pence per ton?)  Don’t get me started on Algebra. Trigonometry…nah! Differential Calculus…wha’? Geometry made some sense. I preferred drawing and painting– shapes and colours. I painted the anti-log page in my Napierian Log tables red, to avoid confusion. Red for danger…get it? Didn’t work. Still trying to get the hang of it.


Just add memories garnered over almost eighty years and you may begin to get the picture as I see it.  Bartle Grimes said with some pride, that Hoar Rock is the Montmartre of Skerries. As a settlement it is probably as old as Montmartre. It was Skerries before the Holmpatrick end of the town evolved. Legend has it that the Vikings named the place; that a Viking fleet drew up on this strand a few weeks before the Battle of Clontarf, deliberating whether they would back the Irish king, Brian Ború or the Viking king of Dyflyn, Sitric. It all comes down to money. Nothing personal-just business. It’s a good beach to land on, with deep water up to the high tide mark. Result- Brian won, Sitric nil. Norway nul points. It set the pattern for Eurovision some years later. Tottie Derham lived in a cottage there. She might have remembered the Vikings. She was the librarian for a few centuries. After ten o’ clock Mass, her friends used to come into the library to censor the books with black pencil. If you held the book up to the light, especially the cowboy books, you could make out the rude words. You probably knew that already. Another Derham told me that the Derhams came over the Hoar Rock Hill, ‘playin’ penny whistles,’ meaning that they came in the wake of Cromwell’s army. Tottie was impossibly old but I came across a postcard she wrote to her uncle, a seafaring man. The address was The schooner Baltic. Prince of Wales Dock, Swansea. She stated that she would be expecting a good few dances when he got home. There was a photograph of a young girl sitting on a bollard at the harbour. The photograph was sepia, as are the memories.

It’s a good strand to swim from. You will get depth in two or three paces at high tide. The water tends to be a bit nippy, but clear most of the time. We swam races from the Hoar Rock to the harbour. As with your man, Proust, it was fascinating to watch the familiar landmarks exchanging places and perspectives. I was entranced. Maybe I lacked the killer instinct. I never made it to the Olympics but I usually made it as far as the harbour, ticking off in my mind the stages. Bobby Beggs’s cottage. Bobby was a superstar of the G.A.A. An old swimmer, Paddy FitzPatrick, told me that Bobby was double jointed. This, he maintained, explained his extraordinary strength and agility. His strength and agility were legendary. Do you remember Bobby Beggs? No? Well then you don’t know what you’re talking about. McGinty, the teacher, who lived in the high grey house, put me to mark Bobby’s son, Brian, in my first ever and last Gaelic football match. It was not a contest of equals. I never heard if Brian was double jointed but he had the advantage of me. McGinty took me off before half time. I’m still metaphorically on the bench.

Hurricane Charley August 1986

The redbrick house belonged to Mr Varian. In fact he owned two houses with a communicating door. The bricks, I understand were imported from Wales or Scotland. Hence the schooner in my painting. I wasn’t actually there that day. Mr. Varian wore a white beard. He walked his two Russian Borzois, rather hairy wolfhounds. They say that people resemble their pets. By happy coincidence, he owned a brush factory in Talbot Street, in Dublin. When we went to the strand with our parents we were in awe of Mr Varian. The hounds were taller than us  but seemed amiable enough. He had a daughter called Barbara Varian. I sort of mixed her name up with ‘barbarian’, hairy chaps also, by all accounts. The son, Stephen apparently disliked getting up in the morning. He delayed the evil hour until he could see the smoke of the train at Gormanston across the bay. Then he was galvanised. He ran to the station just in time to collapse into a carriage and slump into a seat, gasping profanities and struggling for breath. When his vital signs returned, he took his breakfast from his pocket, blowing  shreds of tobacco off two slices of toast made the night before. He also had a hard-boiled egg. Go to work on an egg, the slogan used to say. Frank Matthews, an aviator living at Hoar Rock, gave me an old textbook, Fog, Clouds and Aviation, an invaluable aid when painting land and seascape. Frank, a man of many interests, had a Mannlicher rifle, accurate at three miles, with a telescopic sight. If Stephen had owned such a gun, he could have shot the train driver at Gormanston and gained a few hours in the scratcher. Breakfast in bed even.

I offered to buy McGinty’s house with a view to reviving his bed and breakfast business. Toast and hard-boiled eggs with a quiet smoke afterwards. Percy French stayed there. He was inspired to write The Mountains of Mourne there. He was also inspired to write it in Balbriggan, Laytown, Mornington or anywhere they can be seen sweeping down to the sea. We sat by the fire and discussed the idea. He was most affable. He was not ready to sell. I was glad afterwards. I imagined myself sitting like a funnel-web spider waiting for the sound of a holiday maker, a wandering songsmith in search of lodgings, an unruly band of roisterers on a weekend junket. We have rules in this house. If you want to stay here you’ll have to get out. Tom Boylan’s white wall radiated heat. There was a ledge to sit on and water inviting the swimmer. I would not have been the most genial host.

My  parents took us to the North Strand. There wasn’t too much sand to make dressing difficult. My mother swam and chatted to Mrs Nielson as they trod water twenty yards offshore. She always described Mrs. Nielson as a striking Scandinavian type. Those Vikings again. They could chat for hours. Mrs Nielson had striking Scandinavian looking daughters. I could have chatted for hours but I was tongue-tied in their presence. At low tide we played rounders and cricket on the exposed sand. My brother, who owned the bat,(because he had made it,) was often the winner. He danced around in triumph. He waved the/his bat. He wasn’t tongue-tied in front of the Nielson girls. “I won.I won!” he shouted.  “Don’t crow,” said my father sternly. “You never crow when you win. It just isn’t done.”  I didn’t crow. Didn’t have cause to. I was reticent and modest. I don’t think the Nielson girls noticed me at all. I can see them still,laughing and turning cartwheels on the wet sand. I wasn’t all that great at rounders. Maybe the bat was to blame. Now if I had made it… The Nielson family went to live somewhere else. Bloody Vikings.

A travelling blacksmith set up shop occasionally in Grimes’s stone shed. It was a major occasion. We peered in at the door. Sparks flew. Metal rang on his anvil. Great horses shuffled and snorted in the semi darkness. That shed has been converted into Ithaca, a house where a childhood friend made a light- filled home after his travels. I swim on. There’s Ed Hogan’s house. Ed was an unfailingly kind man. He always told the punchline of the joke before he remembered the build up. He laughed and we laughed. It was funnier than the practised delivery of the professionals. Bennie Ryan lived in a quaint yellow house standing out on a platform.  When you reached the yellow house you were more than half way there. Bennie had several Alsatian dogs. They understood English. “Watch this” he said, throwing a cigarette packet onto the sand. “Fetch.” The dogs scurried around and snatched up stones and sticks and other flotsam. “No, no no,” he said patiently. “That twenty Carroll over there.”. The dogs looked at him. “Ah” they seemed to say.”You could have been more specific.”  One of them ponced on the packet and brought it back to him. The children were entranced.

When we lived in The Square, we spent our time on the strand. With a canvas windbreak we could extend the summer by a few weeks. My grandchildren ask: “Why is it called The Square? It isn’t square.” I gave a rambling explanation covering a wide range of possibilities. “But it isn’t square.” True enough. We take poetic licence. We try to decipher the palimpsest of our familiar places.




The Square



When our eldest children were very small we took them on a walk up the lane where the Community College stands now.  When we got to the top of the hill they looked back. “Oh we’re up in the sky!” The strand stretched away to the harbour. “Are we up in Heaven?” Near enough. Near enough.





The Godfather


I could never figure out why the trams didn’t get hopelessly tangled up in the overhead wires and incinerate all the passengers. There was a zip and a buzz about Dublin life, with a crackle of electricity and sparks flying. Writers of ‘colour pieces’ use metaphors like these to describe Dublin’s night life. I’m writing literally. I don’t remember top hats but I have vivid memories of the cobbled streets and the tracks. There was a Skerries man who ran his Austin 7 over a policeman’s toes at the bottom of Grafton Street. He also ran into a tram in O Connell Street. He had been sampling the buzz of Dublin’s social life and was tired and emotional at the time. He maintained in court, that the tram was on the wrong side. He ran into five cars outside his own pub in Skerries but…sin scéal eile, for another day. Fortunately he never gave us a lift to visit Aunt Nellie, in Glasnevin. We would have missed the tram, unless of course, it was on the wrong side.

Aunt Nellie lived at the top of Whitworth Road, near Cross Guns Bridge.  The handiest way to get there was to get off the Skerries bus in Drumcondra and walk up Whitworth Road, taking in all the sights. There is a canal  with thundering lock gates and a partly hidden railway. We looked at the looming bulk of Mountjoy Gaol, where they hanged people, but we never got to see that. Half way up the road there was a man in bed in a glasshouse. You could look at him through a gap in the hedge. He was there for years, not allowed to get out of bed. He didn’t do anything at all. It must have been frustrating and embarrassing for him to be stared at by curious children. If he had been in the whole of his health, he would have chased us away with a stick. It was probably a succession of men over the years, in truth, but we always had a good gander at The Man in the Glasshouse. This was. of course, Drumcondra Nursing Home and he was a T.B. patient. I wonder if he ever got better. T.B. was the great scourge at the time. ‘You couldn’t buy that house. There was T.B. in it.’ ‘You can’t marry into that family. There was T.B. in that family.’ I got a touch of pneumonia a few years ago. My doctor sent me for X Rays. I rang the Health Board to make an appointment at a clinic. ‘Are you an old T.B. patient?’ asked a voice. ‘That clinic closed twenty years ago.’  ‘No,’ I replied, ‘I’m only an old patient.’ It was as if I had tried to pass myself off as somebody important. Many thanks, Noel Brown, for the campaign against T.B. It worked.

The other way to get to Aunt Nellie’s house was to take a train to Dublin, (an adventure in itself) and then get the No.19 tram. That was ‘the business.’  There was noise. Other trams came at you with crackling lances and sparks. It was like being a knight in armour. At the last minute they funked it and turned aside. Sometimes there were cattle on the road. There were horse-drawn coal carts, drays and bread vans, Kennedys’ Bread, Johnson, Mooney and O Brien, James Rourke.  ‘Johnson, Mooney and O Brien bought a horse for three and nine…’  I forget what happened after that. There were laden carts going to the fruit and veg market. They all scattered away from our progress. It was even better than the other route, the man in the glasshouse, the roaring lock gates and the dark, looming prison. We got off, reluctantly, at Cross Guns Bridge and made a little detour to see the marvellous painting on the pub. That’s Brian Boru exhorting his troops before the Battle of Clontarf in 1014.  Brian won; Vikings nil. At least, that was how we learned it, the good guy, the Christian warrior. The old painting gives an impression of a barbaric contest in the making. The later version shows him as a well-groomed mediaeval knight, with all the romantic panoply of feudal warfare. He has had a make-over.

P. HEDIGAN Wine Merchant   Family Grocer. It’s a pub, for God’s sake. The two lads on the left are ‘Grocers’ Curates.’  The two on the right are there for the beer and , more importantly, to be immortalised as typical Dubliners. I doubt if they dropped in for a pound of sugar or a loaf of bread. ‘Don’t eat Kennedys’ bread. It will stick in your belly like lead. It will rumble like thunder and your mother will wonder, sooooo don’t eat Kennedy’s bread.’


Aunt Nellie Barry was my father’s aunt, not ours. She wore black, as befitted a widow, but she had more fun in her than people half her age. She also made  apple tarts, with cloves in them.  There was a tennis club at the end of her garden. We were drawn by the laughter of sophisticated, glamorous young men and women in white tennis costumes. I recognised them years later in the suburban poetry of  John Betjeman. That was Betjeman the spy. He looked at everything and described what he saw, so they decided that he was a spy. He spied on Miss Joan Hunter-Dunne and Mefanwy on her bicycle. He caught the wonder of a young lad looking through  a gap in the hedge, at those glittering creatures in Glasnevin Lawn Tennis Club.  (I was rubbish at tennis. I got bored after a few minutes of retrieving the ball.)  There were yarns and reminiscences in the Barry house. There was a Kevin Barry in the family. He was not the poor lad who was hanged in Mountjoy Gaol. At the time of the Rising, in 1916 ‘our’ Kevin received a revolver in a shoe box, with orders to report to the G.P.O. for active service. He was fifteen years old. His father urged him to go. His mother wouldn’t let him.  I heard how my father and Jack used to call on relations on Christmas Day to convey the compliments of the season. Jack was a charmer, always reluctant to leave the company. My father always got the blame for keeping everyone waiting for Christmas dinner, an injustice he resented for the rest of his life. The rest of his life could have been very short, according to another story I heard. A man tried to shoot him in the Clarence Hotel, but the gun jammed. The Civil War was a time for random killing and grudge killings and sheer bloody- minded killings. I heard the identity of the man in question by accident, some sixty years later, a bleak, mean-minded tee-totaller (my father’s natural enemy) who distinguished himself in public life and spawned a couple of sons. I heard them speak about him. They didn’t like him either. I will come back to him another day.

Colm Barry was my god-father, a man of great ability and transient enthusiasms. I gathered that he had a weakness for ‘the jar’ . He was a brilliant linguist and a not so brilliant wood worker. He had a workshop full of expensive equipment, even a lathe, in the garden, where he turned…some dowels. He gave a load of tools to my brother, setting him out on a lifetime of making and measuring and fixing things.  He subjected me to a quiz about colours and pigments. I did not impress.  (Nobody believes that when I started school, we used to chew the ends of matchsticks to make paint brushes. Match sticks!  Bloody luxury!) He gave me a box of Windsor and Newton, artists’ quality watercolours in a ‘Japanned tin’ box and a bunch of sable brushes, a relic of another of his faded enthusiasms. I used them for years. I imagine that Colm nipped around the corner to the Family Grocer, too often to make a career in art or wood turning. He was a nice man with something of the aura of a lost genius about him. His one unforgivable crime was to mistake my brother for me, his godson, and give him half a crown. Like The Mafia, you never forget something like that.


I wanted to paint pictures like the one on the pub, but all I could paint was cowboys on mis-shapen horses. ‘Do you never paint anything but cowboys?’ my father asked. Was that the ‘discouraging word’ mentioned in Home on the Range? I have tried other subjects since then. If I had persisted, I could have rivalled Remington. I could have had my paintings in The White House.  They say that Remington didn’t so much as paint the Wild West. He invented it. We all invent  and re-invent our world and our history.


Perhaps it’s time to repaint Brian Boru, High King of Ireland, as the Godfather, Il Capo di Tutti Capi.  It’s only a matter of time until Russel Crowe gets hold of his story and , like everyone else on television, goes about with a sword, eviscerating people. He will be the next big thing. Now where did I leave those paints?


Visitors to Skerries (1) Woar mongers.


There is a story in one of the sagas, concerning a Viking king and his shipwright. The great new  ship was finished. The king gave a feast in his hall, to celebrate. When he brought his guests outside to admire his ship, he found that somebody had cut notches of varying depths all along the top planks, destroying the beauty of the vessel. He was furious and threatened terrible vengeance on the culprit. The shipwright stepped forward stating that he had done it himself. The king demanded an explanation.

“I was not satisfied with the line,” said the shipwright. “It is good, but not perfect. When I have planed it down to the level of the notches, it will be perfect.”

The king was doubtful but he gave him the time and a stay of execution.  The shipwright set to work with adze and plane, under the watchful eye of his king. When he was finished the line was sublime, a thing of beauty. The king smiled, acknowledging the art of the shipwright. The longship was ready to bring rapine and terror to the coasts and estuaries of Europe and cross the seas to far away Iceland, Greenland and North America. The longship was graceful, sinuous, built to flex with the waves, a dragon ship in every way. A terrible beauty, to use a well-worn phrase.

Tufa stone, Walls, North strand, Arcadia 011

Another saga tells how a fleet from Iceland, sailing down by Faroe and Orkney, arrived at the Isle of Man. The crews discussed an impending war between Sitric, King of Dublin and a great war-chief from the south, Brian Boru. Brian’s reputation as a warrior and leader, swayed many of them to throw in their lot with him. The prospects of pay and loot were better with Brian. There is a tradition that many of the Viking fleet that came to take part in the subsequent battle of Clontarf, grounded their keels at Skerries. It is probable that they landed at the Hoar Rock, where there is deep water right up to the shore, at high tide and safe ground at low tide.

balbriggan storm etc nokia 025

That was a thousand years ago, this year. Imagine the longships gliding to shore, one after another. You can see the men lowering their sails, shipping their oars, letting their vessels surge forward, until they come to rest, with a crunch, on the shelving strand. They would have said ‘strand’ not ‘beach.’  The battle did not result in the expulsion of the Vikings from Ireland. They had been here for two centuries. They had built the first real towns. Their genes persist in the Irish. They accommodated themselves to the new order, if semi-anarchy can be called a new order. Their family names survive: Grimes, Seaver, Mac Lochlainn in its many forms, the son of the Viking. They named what they saw: Water-fjord, Lamb-ey, Skar-eys, Vik(inge)low,Ireland’s-ey. In Greenland they named a fjord ‘Loud shouting’. Can’t you hear their voices echoing back from the cliffs and from the glaciers? In New England—-‘Wonder-Strands.’ In some Irish cities, there is an Oxmantown, an area allocated to the Ostmen, the easterners, after the political changes brought about by Brian’s victory at Clontarf. Brian was not there to see it. His killer, Brodir was pursued for days and weeks, until he was found and killed on Corrin Hill, beside Fermoy.  It is the hill with the tall stone cross at the summit. Brodir was caught on the north side of the hill, a place of accursed memory, where the Sun never shines.

Their cousins appeared in Ireland a century and a half after the Battle of Clontarf, the Norsemen of Normandy. The reverberations of that invasion are still with us, as are their castles and their genes.

There is an old account from The Hebrides, of how the people, Vikings, gave a barrel of ale to the sea every year, in return for a plentiful supply of fish and woar. Until a generation ago, the farmers of Fingal drew cartloads of woar from the island and from the strands, after the autumn gales. There was a ‘woar war’ between the farmers of Skerries and Rush. It had to do with payment to the landlord for every cartload. The Rush men encroached on Skerries strand, without paying the charge. Maybe they were right. The Vikings would have sorted it all out, including the landlord, in jig time. Nowadays, the fertiliser comes in plastic sacks and woar is used to wrap sushi and make cosmetics.

Eric the Red was banished from Iceland, after a dispute over some wooden benches. He lent them to a neighbour for a wedding, as you do. The neighbour refused to give them back. Erik took an axe to him, as you might. There are no real trees in Iceland. Timber is precious. He took his family to Greenland. Leif Ericsson sailed to Dublin to get a cargo of  Yuletide ale for his father. Christmas ale; my father referred to it always as ‘refreshments.’ It is just possible that, on the way back, Eric and his crew sampled some of the refreshments——–because they missed Greenland and found North America. (Italian Americans vehemently dispute this.) They also found endless supplies of timber, a suitable Christmas gift for his father. (We know, of course, that Saint Brendan, the intrepid Kerryman, got there centuries before any of them. America should, by rights, belong to ‘The Kingdom’.)

The ‘sea roads’ joined  the Viking world like a spider web. Skerries is  a dewdrop on a filament of that great web. Kipling caught it well:

‘What is woman, that you forsake her

And the hearth fire and the home acre,

To go with the old, grey, widow-maker?

Tufa stone, Walls, North strand, Arcadia 015

Doesn’t any large vessel, appearing over the horizon, carry that element of beauty and menace? Be not alarmed. It’s one of ours.