The Lane Pictures

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I can still remember, some sixty five years ago or more, the shock of surprise on looking down the various lanes leading to the South Strand and seeing Rockabill lighthouse at the end of each one. It confirmed in me the childhood suspicion that Rockabill is really a ship. No matter where I go, it slides along the horizon, keeping pace with me. I knew nothing of perspective or triangulation…still don’t know much…but it keeps pace with me when I go for a walk, sometimes hiding behind an island and then darting out like a sheepdog, running away to north or south to herd the boats towards the harbour in safety…mixed metaphors there.  I regard these lanes as being parallel. Parallel lines meet in infinity, so Rockabill, being their focal point, must be quite close to infinity.

It is impossible to walk down any of these lanes without encountering memories. Halfway down Fairs’ Lane, we queued for the cheap seats in Flanagans’ picture house, usually in the rain, but who worried about rain? Sophisticates, with a few more bob, queued under an awning around the corner. They sat in the raised seats and looked down on the plebs. A plaque commemorates old Flanagan who introduced electricity to Skerries. Had he not done so, we would have spent our evenings in darkness and gloom, instead of joining in the excitement  and glamour of Hollywood. But it is fitting that the lane is Fairs’ Lane, not Flanagans’. Johnny Fair,with his grocer’s shop on the corner, lived up to his name. A decent, universally respected, Northern Protestant, in the days when such things were automatically registered in the mind, he was a fair man to talk. If you were waiting to collect stuff for your Mammy, you knew that you were doomed when he leaned his left elbow on the counter and put his chin on the palm of his hand, in conversation with some adult. This could cost you half an hour of your life. I should remember the content, the fascinating details of village life, the gossip, the news, the scandal, but the time passed in a sort of catatonic trance as I read the labels on the storage boxes behind the counter and shifted from one foot to the other, rehearsing my list of ‘messages.’ Bizarrely, the Volunteers, during the War of Independence, got buckets of paraffin ‘on tick’, from Johnny Fair and headed off across the strand to burn down the Coast-Guard station. I wonder if the bill was ever paid.

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The perks of the job. Mr. Weldon was a major shareholder and manager in the quarry. Did he bring work home to make a very fine kerb for his railings? Did he perhaps, secrete these blocks about his person, when going home in the evening?  There is an urban legend about a worker in General Motors who pilfered a complete car, in installments over a period of years. By the time the vehicle was assembled, it had gone out of fashion and spare parts were hard to come by. Mr. Weldon’s railings and kerbstones still retain an old-fashioned elegance.

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This was O Neills’ Lane to us and more puzzlingly, Bombush Lane. I enquired. It was Bonne Bouche, pleasant bite. John O Neill sold sweets in his Aladdin’s cave of a shop. Another Northerner with a facility for chat. Another half hour of your life gone but worth it. I heard about the White-Russian lady gymnast who married a farmer back where John came from. “She wore a leotard, Master.” He always called me ‘Master’, as is the custom back where John came from. “I tell you, Master, we never saw anything like it in those days, back where I came from. They came from all over to see her. She set up these bars in the yard and used to swing on them, over and back. Over and back. Oh Mother o’ God! Heh,heh.”  What would John think of the modern garb? Oh Mother o’ God!

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You can say anything to anyone in a pub, as long as it’s only  ‘slagging.’ You must say it to his face. If you say it behind his back, it’s slander.   Slagging is not as brutal as the American custom of ‘The Roast.’ There is a strong element of affection and respect in slagging. There is the assumption that your interlocutor can give as good as he gets. Alcohol helps.  “Hey Flanagan”challenged Mike Manning, a big and jovial man. “Your family made quite a contribution to Skerries over the years.”  “Indeed we did,” replied Leo. He was justly proud of his family’s contribution. “So how come there isn’t a road or even a lane named after you?” Fair question. “I’d rather have that than have a Flanagan’s Opening with a public convenience at the bottom of it.”  Fair answer too. Mike laughed.

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McLoughlins’ Lane is Monument Lane or Carnival Lane, depending on your frame of mind. Be careful of your footing. In wet weather it can be mucky. A man came out of the back entrance of The Dublin Bar one night and went to take a short cut home. He was noted for his stammer. He missed the entrance to McLoughlin’s lane and bounced off the wall. He had another go. He hit the wall on the other side and fell backwards. He got up and tried again. He missed again. He got up and dusted himself down. He regarded the entrance indignantly. “B-b-b-bred, b-b-born and r-rared in the e-e-effin town an’ I can’t even get out of it.” He should have a lane named after him.

June 7th of this year marks the centenary of the torpedoing of The Lusitania, off the Old Head of Kinsale lighthouse. This obscenity gave us the concept of ‘a crime against humanity.’ You would think that humanity would stop and think and even pull back from the horrors of war. Not a chance. It set the fashion for total war and innumerable crimes against humanity in the bloodiest century to date. Among the 1198 people destroyed on that date, (It took 15 minutes) was Sir Hugh Lane, benefactor and connoisseur of art.  You can go and see some of his paintings in the Municipal Gallery in Dublin and remember him, perhaps as an antidote to the the commemoration of a decade of violence and mayhem. In the meantime, my ocean liner goes full steam ahead in every weather, with a cargo of memories.(I hate that cliché Memory Lane but it’s almost unavoidable.) Remember the good things and the good people and commemorate them in your mind. Fair play to them.

Tara, Rockabill, Harbour  end 100

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

old mill, mill pond, cabra 005

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.