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.





To Infinity and Beyond. The Great Northern Railway. Eggs scrambled and otherwise.

Dougal, Train track frostie swim 037

The railway came to Skerries about 160 years ago, in the middle of The Great Famine.It seems like an unlikely time to speculate on new-fangled machines and a network of tracks all over the country. Like the famine, the railways radically changed this country. The engineers created new landscapes, levelling or cutting through hills and piling embankments across swamps and valleys. Everything was subservient to gradient. Elegant viaducts stride across rivers and estuaries. For the first time speed greater than that of a galloping horse became possible. The fascination of railways still survives.

It is ironic to think that what fascinates us most, is often that which is forbidden. The Duke of Wellington, then Prime Minister, saw at close quarters, his political rival, Huskisson, killed by Stevenson’s Rocket. It instilled in him a horror of trains. He instructed that railways and trains should be hedged about by fences and notices warning of dire punishments for any who trespass on the tracks. Those notices are still there, elegant cast iron warnings with raised print. A century and a half of paint made many illegible, but they fulfill the letter of the law. In the cast iron awning at the station you will still see the letters GNR intertwining amid the struts and braces. The railway age was the time when cast iron sprouted and blossomed into Corinthian pillars and fruit-laden boughs. Some of that old decency survives amid the electronics and loud-speakers.
Dougal, Train track frostie swim 042
Dougal, Train track frostie swim 040
Mr. Sreenan was once the station master. He was a small good-natured man with a high-pitched voice. I remember him mostly in his retirement. He lived near us. His wife kept hens. I was often sent to buy eggs, a task which I enjoyed. Their front door was exactly the same as ours, but on a smaller scale. It was on the level, with no visible doorstep. I could reach the knocker. I was a giant. I pounded on the knocker and said in a deep, rumbling giant’s voice: ‘Mammy wants to know if you can oblige with a dozen eggs.’ That was in the days when people ‘obliged with a song’ or ‘obliged with the time’. Actually I didn’t pound. I minded my manners. My voice squeaked, but it felt great to be a giant, if only for a few minutes. Mr. Sreenan gave me his bike when he got too old to ride it. It was the most comfortable bike in the world, with a step on the back axle. I had it for a week. My brother pranged it, doing speedway around Red Island. He has promised to fix it for me.

Mr. Canning’s time was the golden age of the station. His sons were much the same age as we were. This gave us the entree to the platforms and even the signal box, with its battery of levers and cables. I marvelled at how the signal men knew which lever to pull, or push. They had lanterns which they lit in the evening before plodding off to the distance signals. They carried awesome responsibility and power. Very occasionally they remembered Wellington’s warnings and chased us off the premises. At the northern siding lay The Ballast Pit, where locomotives scraped out their furnaces and dumped the cinder. There was an ever-smouldering fire at the Ballast Pit, where people came to pick coke in winter time. I recall boys coming late to school with the soot and ashes on their hands and the shame-faced excuse: ‘Pickin’ coke, Sir.’ We would call it sustainable recycling nowadays.

The railway livery was mediaeval in its splendour. The buses were navy and fawn, with a British Leyland tiger leaping dramatically out of the bonnet. The GNR coat of arms was a shield with ships and castles, the red hand of Ulster, a sword and strangest of all, a genial skeleton sitting on a sack of coal. I was fascinated by his smile. I thought he had a great job, riding around on trains and buses all the time.

Just as the railway imposed its will on the landscape, creating swamps and embankments, it imposed itself on human behaviour. People became its minions. The timetable ruled their lives. If one commuter broke into a trot, everybody followed suit. Scientists study flocks of birds to find out about this herd /flock behaviour. It’s quite simple. If you don’t run you won’t get a seat. You won’t be able to read your paper or meet your usual travelling companions. This, of course, does not apply to starlings. Nowadays people travel with plugs in their ears. They don’t look out at the sunrise over Rogerstown or Howth or the splendour of the harvest fields. They fiddle with their phones or sit immobile, with that thousand-yard-stare of the terminally catatonic. In this way, they can avoid seeing the elderly or pregnant and not feel obliged to oblige with the offer of a seat.
The alternative is to commute by car and spend the time clenching the steering wheel and swearing. Did you see Michael Douglas on the freeway in Falling Down? His subsequent behaviour was a bit over the top, but he had a point.

Mr. Canning had a regrettable habit of making sure that the train departed on time. In the interests of safety, he closed the platform gate. This sometimes infuriated my father, who usually timed his sprint to perfection. There were heated exchanges.
‘Just because you have a bit of scrambled egg on your cap…’ At first I thought he was alluding to a hasty breakfast or a small commercial transaction, but it was a charge that came out of the pit of antiquity, the resentment of senior officers and ‘dogs obeyed in office.’ The next train was in an hour’s time, time enough to come back home and fume over another cup of tea. We stepped warily and got ready for school. Sadly, Mr Canning was killed by a motor car, outside our house. My father was very upset. ‘Decent bloody fellow.’

The GNR passed away. The great steam locomotives were supplanted. You can no longer stick your head over the parapet of a railway bridge and get a face full of smoke. The parapets have all been raised in the interests of safety. Diesel trains in CIE green, took over. No longer in the dark can you trace the passage of a train by the puffing of smoke and the hiss of steam. If there is a tear in your eye when remembering those bygone days, at least it is not from grains of soot wafted in through an open window.

Brother Malachy explained how parallel lines can do amazing things in geometry. They never meet. Except,of course, in infinity. He smiled at our puzzlement at this vast concept. When there was no steam locomotive available, there was occasionally an electric rail car. There was a seat beside the driver, although he lived in an enclosed cabin with levers and buttons and the fascinating ‘dead man’s handle’. Perhaps that was the skeleton’s job. From this much contested seat you had the same view as the driver. Brother Malachy was mistaken. Parallel lines meet beyond the golf course, just before you get to Lusk. Somewhere beyond that again, the old GNR trains still rumble onwards into infinity.