Back to the Future, Skerries Harbour. Halcyon Days.

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Back to the Future was possibly the best publicity John Delorean ever got for his car, unfortunately for him, a little too late. I’m sure there were days when he wished that he could have driven through a worm-hole in time and altered his history for the better. It was a gull-wing car, a bit like a Stuka, but awkward to get out of in the average suburban garage. He needed a bit of magic to slip backwards and forwards in time. In fact he needed a miracle in the end, to get out of the tight spot he  found himself in. No joy, as Big Ned Halpin used to say. No joy at all, at all. Big Ned, an enthusiastic swimmer, manufactured Halcyon mattresses…“For the Rest of Your Life.”

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I thought of Back to the Future when this old press cutting slipped out of the past, to puzzle us. That’s our youngest son  leaning on the railings. He was an avid fisherman, spending day after day, all summer long, fishing off the end of the harbour. He came home with mackerel, prawns off the boats and stories, not so much about the ones that got away, as about the ones snatched by the seals, off the end of his line. It was a battle of wits against the seals. Sometimes he came home as darkness was falling: “What time do you call this?” Every parent says things like that. I recognised the boat, Wanda, a grandstand for spectators during the swimming races alongside the pier. I recognised the bigger ‘fifty-footers’ that began to tie up in Skerries in the mid to late fifties, Ros Seán, Ros Eo, Ros Pádraig, Ros Cathail. The harbour became too congested for swimming races. The water tasted of diesel and fish guts, an acquired taste. The races moved elsewhere. But there was something else fishy about this photograph.  It is dated 1961, twenty years before our youngest lad was born. The harbour is much shorter.  I see myself as a young man in the middle distance. I would have recognised our youngest child if he had come back from the future to interfere with the Space-Time Continuum. I say that as if I knew what it means. I might have given him a clip in the ear, (It’s ok  to do that again, with a dispensation from the Pope) if I had spotted him interfering with stuff like time and space. Maybe he was just loitering in the hope of introducing me to the girl who was to become his mother. Isn’t that the plot of the story? Einstein was just an old romantic at heart. I would have cut a dash in a Delorean all the same, in 1961. All I had was a fifth hand Francis Barnett two-stroke that spewed burnt oil on rider and passenger alike. Nevertheless, she fell for the glamour of my Francis Barnett and the rest, as they say, is history.

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In the late sixties we could hear the indefatigable pile-driver sinking the footings for the harbour extension. When the wind blew from the east we heard tank tank tank, all day and all night long, just down at the end of the street. When it blew from the west or south, we heard, from far away, tink tink tink, with the regularity of a good timepiece. We got a longer harbour with a new lighthouse, a great many more fishing boats and a great many more gulls dipping at the scraps. Fishing rods bristled at the pier head and opportunist seals came to pilfer mackerel from the unwary. There was a new ice-house, a solid and unlovely, utilitarian structure.

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‘Time and the hour run through the longest day.’ We joined The Common Market with its common fisheries policy and its common agricultural policy. The halcyon days were over for the fishing industry, if indeed they ever had halcyon days. The European Union has facilitated the de-commissioning and break-up of all those rugged little trawlers. For a time the harbour was a graveyard of decaying and rusting vessels. Now they are almost all gone, to be replaced by the small and even more rugged, razor fishing boats. The  harbour has begun to look as it was a century ago. We buy sea bass from Greece and Turkey and have them delivered by air. Explain the economics of that to me, if you can. I suppose we must move with the times. A halcyon, by the way, is a Greek kingfisher.

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Our little fisherman from the end of the harbour, will be thirty four this month. So…..eh… how did he…..?  Maybe he has a Francis Barnett….with a Villiers engine and more oil than the trawlers spilled into the harbour over sixty years… to reach warp speed, shoot down a worm-hole in the Space-Time whatsit and sort out his parents-in-waiting.

It’s all Greek to me.

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Slip-sliding away

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A century ago, this was a cottage. It had a slated roof, a garden and a picket fence. Children played on the strand in summertime. I have seen the pictures… happy holiday-makers returning to Skerries, to the place where their grandfather, Reverend Shegog, was the Minister in the Church of Ireland. You may have seen his photograph, a tall, bearded man in his cork lifejacket, supervising the launching of the lifeboat at the harbour. You may have heard the story of his son, a doctor, who died in the Great War.  A week after his death, a telegram arrived to his quarters, announcing the birth of a child, a child who never knew his father. Old stories, that hang in barely remembered shreds, like the weeds on the crumbling cliff. Perhaps my recollection of the stories, is crumbling too. They echo, like the distant calls of children on a strand, or the cries of the nesting fulmars. Even the fulmars must give some thought to the changes taking place around them.

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Fulmarus glacialis is the official name. The fulmars have lived here ever since the last Ice Age clothed the rock in boulder clay and fine gravel, to make an island. They live on fish, shellfish and small crustaceans, a gourmet diet. They can’t go hungry on Shennick Island.The Dutch name for fulmar is mallemuk meaning foolish gull. The Dutch are mistaken. The fulmars nest together in apparent amity. They stay together all winter, sheltering from the storms. Their food supply is immediately below them. They glide down to forage and soar back up to their ledges, masters of their element. They warn intruders off, with raucous cries.  Gah, Gah, Gah.

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The storms and high tides rend the island. They undermine the cliff. They spill the boulders and gravel onto the strand and sweep it all away. We watch as  the profile changes from year to year. We are concerned. We see the traces of human effort falling away. We experience regret for what is lost. Men stayed overnight in the cottage, to steal a march on the tide, when they went out to collect the woar. The winkle-pickers of today would be glad of four walls and a roof. They come from Latvia. They tell me that they don’t feel the cold. They work at night, with miners’ lamps, moving, like Will o’ the Wisps, on the dark foreshore.

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You can read the story of the Ice Age in the layers, the black marl under the sand of the beach, the rough clay and boulders torn from the bedrock; the fine gravel, deposited grain by grain, in the beds of sub-glacial streams. The sea will take it all, the gravel and the jagged stones, sift and sort it and send it somewhere else, to make beaches of fine sand and drifts of gleaming pebbles. Nothing is lost; everything is changed. The granite pillar above the cottage proclaims ownership of the island, His Majesty’s War Office, ‘in Good King George’s glorious day’. The martello tower belonged to His Majesty. He prepared for war. The gulls and the pigeons own it now.  But for how long more?

For the present, the crabs and winkles welcome the shelter of the rocks and stones. The cockles burrow in the mud and sand. The mussels open and close with the tide. The mussel beds suffered greatly in the recent storms, but already the tiny spat is clothing the rocks, like a fine fur. Give them four years and they will make a tasty meal. People will come to dig for lugworms and probe for razor fish. The tide will ebb and flow, undermining and sifting. Gravity will bear down inexorably. The cottage wall will crack asunder. The tower will creep closer and closer to the edge. You and I won’t be around to see it fall.

The fulmars will move back a foot or two, with every slump and subsidence. They will soar on the updraughts and build their nests in the sun. They will dine together in some style. They will not send their children to war. Foolish gulls? I don’t think so.

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