Bank Holidays and a New Skerries Family.

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It is generally accepted that W.E. Gladstone was a decent man who tried in different ways, to improve the quality of peoples’ lives. God knows he had his work cut out in the middle of the Victorian age, when ‘Dickensian’ was a by-word for poverty and misery.One of his lasting and welcome innovations was the extension of the Bank Holiday to all citizens to provide some relief from the daily grind. The advance of the railways resulted in a lemming-like migration on bank holidays, to the seaside and other places of recreation. Think of the modern bank holiday traffic jams. A car full of impatient ..’are we there yet?’….children.  Sandy sandwiches, a chilly breeze  coming off the sea, sudden squalls of rain and huddling behind a windbreak on the South Strand, in wet bathing togs. It must be worth it in the end. The funny thing is that these are the memorable days, the days the family cherishes and laughs about in the years to come.

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Paul Darcy at work.

We can be a bit smug in Skerries because we can pick and choose. We have the amenities at our doorstep, winter and summer. There is a special poignancy in walking about a seaside resort in mid-winter. The beaches are strewn with the debris of the most recent storm, all the plunder of the Deep laid out to amaze us. You won’t need your togs today. Not for us the long and creeping traffic jam on migration to the sea. We are spared the sweaty, rattling bus journey with the kids, bags of beach gear and fold-up go cars…are we there yet?…are we there yet?…We don’t have to queue for the bus at the end of the day, with cranky children, or fathers with a few pints too many, or mothers invariably keeping the show on the road. Memorable days indeed.

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Do you remember The Film Fun or The Radio Fun, two comics that extracted the maximum spin-off value from the popular stars of the day: Jimmy Jewell and Ben Warris, Jimmy Edwards, with his handlebar moustache and his sidekick Dick Bentley, Ollie and Stan? They always travelled in pairs, (possibly to avoid the ‘single-room supplement’). They marked the great occasions of the years in appropriate fashion, usually with a ‘slap-up feed’ or a trip to Brighton/Skegness/Morecambe, for the Whit Bank Holiday. They wore striped full length bathing togs on the beach and knotted handkerchiefs on their heads.There were minor disasters usually mitigated by a nearby millionaire who laughed so much at their misfortune that he would invariably say: “I haven’t laughed so much in twenty years. Here’s fifty pounds.” The day was saved. You can always tell a millionaire because he wears a top hat and striped trousers. He has a glittering diamond on his tie-pin and another on the band of his cigar. I keep a sharp eye out for them. It wasn’t really very funny but perhaps it was reassuring for people to think that they shared something with such luminaries. Why though, did Ollie and Stan travel all the way from Hollywood to spend a bank holiday weekend in Blackpool/Bognor/Bournemouth? George Formby did in fact, come to Skerries, with ‘is little ukelele  in ‘is ‘and.

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The seal sculptures are the new landmark of Skerries. The artist has liberated the spirit of ‘family’ from nineteen tons of Portuguese limestone. This family makes people smile. ‘Mammy, Mammy, can I have an icecream?’  ‘When Daddy has finished his lunch.’  ‘Can I go for a swim?…Even the fish has a slight smile on his face. Michelangelo had a vast block of Carrara marble, discarded by the builders, as waste. He rose every morning to catch the first light of dawn, when the marble was at its most translucent. He saw David inside the stone. All that remained was to chip away the superfluous marble and release the young king. It’s all very simple, if you don’t count the incalculable hours of toil and the particular skill of the artist who sees the possibilities locked in a piece of rock.

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Out of his own gifts, Paul has bestowed a gift on all of us. Children arriving on the bus or by car, will know that they are there when they see the seals. ‘Mammy, Mammy, can I go and sit up on a seal?’  ‘Of course you may. That’s what they were designed for.’ The coming bank holiday will introduce this new Skerries family to our visitors. Keep an eye out for Abbott and Costello and a laughing millionaire. It could be your lucky day. Thank William Ewart Gladstone if it is.

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Well done, Paul. The further good news is that there is plenty more white limestone in Portugal. You will have to get up early in the morning to carve it all.

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Red sails in the…….An infinity of mirrors. Red Island, Skerries.

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If you hold a mirror up to a mirror, you see a tunnel of mirrors, theoretically going on into infinity, to the extent that you are seeing images from the past. It has to do with the time it takes the light from the furthest mirror image to reach your eye. (They’re all the same distance away, in the plane of the mirror you’re holding.) Light, as you know, is pretty fast. The light you see from a star fifty million light years away started out fifty million years ago and has just reached your eyes. This should be big news. That particular star may no longer exist but we will have to wait another fifty million years to see the light going out. That will be big news. While you are waiting, enjoy the show. Wander around by Red Island. Watch the Mirror dinghies dancing and vying for position in a stiff breeze. Watch the wind and kite surfers levitating on the waves. Dive in and enjoy the waves yourself. You have time to kill.

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On the north east side of Red Island you are shielded from the lights of the town. On a clear, moonless night the stars lean closer, like diamonds on a black cloth. You can find true north and for a few minutes get your bearings in the immensity of the Universe. We took the children there one night, to see Kohoutek’s comet. It was predicted to be as bright as the full moon. It was, as the fella says, a bit of a damp squid. Comets are a bit squid shaped when you think about it. “What will you do if it hits the earth?” I asked. They knew a fair bit about rockets and aliens. “I’ll kill myself just before it hits,” said one little fellow. “That way I won’t get hurt.” “I’m freezin’ ” chorused the others. “Can we go home now?” That was in 1973. So far so good, although experts tell us that they have discovered a whole new category of asteroids whizzing around in space, each one with our number on it. Kohoutek was C/1973 EI, a Cork or Aer Lingus registration, easy for the Guards to track down. after the impact. Kohoutek will be back again to a sky near you in 75,000 years time. You have been warned.

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My mother remembered seeing Halley’s comet in 1910. It made a big impression on her. It was caught in the branches of their pear tree. She said that Halley was at Bethlehem, two millennia ago and managed to get into the Bayeux Tapestry in 1066. Definitely worth a look.  So we went back to Red Island in 1986, this time to impress the younger children.  Halley put on a better show than Kohoutek but the wind was bitterly cold. “Lemme back in the car. I’m freezin’. ” They were not impressed. Halley will be back again in 2061. I will be 118 years old by then, too old to be coping with recalcitrant children. They can do what they like about Halley. Hale-Bopp, arriving in 1997, was the ultimate squib.  It blazed in the night sky. It was visible for 19 months, brighter than most stars. It will be back in 3,397A.D. I will probably wander around to Red Island to have a gander at it.

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It’s not red at all. The name came from the practice of drying newly dyed sails on the grass. It came to mean a holiday camp, popular with visitors from England after the war. They were good-natured people who enjoyed a drink and a sing-song in the Gladstone Inn. I meant to write about the McManus sail-making family of Skerries and Boston, but more of them anon. The Mirrors drew me in a different direction. Contemplating infinity is daunting. Astrologers tell you that the Cosmos is centred on you. You are important. Astronomers tell us that we are insignificant in the great scheme of things. Astrology has a greater following. The mirrors that take us into the past are old photographs, memories and stories of those who are precious to us. One image can prompt a train of thought, as can a word, a scent or a fleeting sound. I heard an old ‘Red Islander’ in The Gladstone, reciting a poem about the Battle of ‘Astings: There was ‘Arold on ‘is ‘orse, wiv ‘is ‘awk on ‘is ‘and… 

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(Click on the image to enlarge)

There indeed he is on this wonderful record of the past. Poor old ‘Arold, wiv an arrer in ‘is eye..  Isti mirant stella The lads right of centre in the lower panel, are ostensibly gazing at Halley’s Comet. One of them is shrugging: ‘Don’t ask me.’ Is it a good or bad omen? Depends on which side you’re on. They are, of course, mistaken. It’s a wocket ship with alien invaders on board, as any child could tell you. Keep an eye out for them in 2061.

Churches moving with the times

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I was always intrigued by this structure on the South Strand, with its Gothic appearance and its decoration of seashells. A girl told me that she saw a monk walking out of the wall, late one night. ‘He just walked out of the wall and then he disappeared. It’s true.’  I was prepared to believe anything she told me, at the time. I was even prepared to go back there late some other night, but alas!  no joy. A friend who collected beetles, said that the biggest ‘clocks’ were found in that old ruin. He kept them in matchboxes and brought them to school. They ticked like clocks, but they had no practical use that I know of. They had no trade value for chestnuts or marbles. They had no nutritional value…I hope. Despite their name, they can’t even tell the time. Maybe it was the thrill of climbing over the wall into forbidden territory, that made them valuable. The truth is that it isn’t a ruin at all. It is a nineteenth century garden ornament, a folly, perhaps. ‘Folly’ suggests foolishness, but what’s foolish about building a thing that intrigues and pleases both the owner and passers-by?  Then there is the matter of the monk.

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The extract from Walsh’s Fingal and its Churches, shows the ruin on Saint Patrick’s Island, as it was in  the mid nineteenth century. He mentions the synod of 1148, when fifteen bishops and five hundred priests attended, to set the Irish church to rights. Think of the logistics and the catering. That little boat in the drawing must have been plying back and forth day and night. You couldn’t feed five hundred and fifteen devout clerics on birds’ eggs, a few crabs and  a sprinkling of winkles. However, they got the job done and things have been grand ever since. Augustinian monks rebuilt the monastery and hung on there for a few centuries, but eventually, they packed it in and moved to Holmpatrick, on the mainland. Henry VII moved them on again. You can see the memorial stone of the last abbot, Peter Mann, at the corner of the old tower.   A group of Hippies proposed setting up a commune on the island in the 1960s. A tidal wave of depravity threatened to overwhelm the God-fearing people of Skerries. The Hippy leader even had a beard, for God’s sake. What more provocation could we take? Thumbscrews and the stake would have been too good for them. Logistics and the weather deflected the danger in the long run.

Another 19th century account of the island, describes the ruin and tells how a Scotsman named Cochrane, who lived in Seapark, ploughed the island for cultivation. He found a great many gravestones which he threw over the cliffs. Bloody vandal!  He also removed  a stone coffin, which he brought to the mainland and used as a horse trough. Moreover, he took large quantities of the tufa stone from the church, to make garden rockeries and ornaments. Tufa is a form of porous limestone, not to be confused with tuff , a porous volcanic rock, sometimes referred to as tufa. Right? That’s all clear then. (I will ask questions later.) That porous stone on the ‘ruin’ is tufa. It is quite beautiful, with its seashells and its sense of unimaginable time. Archaeologists might not agree. Maybe the ghostly monk just visits there for old time’s sake.

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(Image courtesy of Image Depot, Skerries.)

Everyone knows this picture of the real ruin on the island, with its photograph of Saint Patrick. A great deal has fallen away since Walsh wrote about it. It is still impressive, a dry-stone ruin covered in vivid lichen. It would look well at the bottom of the garden. Throw in a few ‘clocks’.  Some nice bits of tufa there too. Make a handsome rockery. I promised questions:

1 Do you know where that stone coffin/horse trough is? I have a frustrating, vague notion that I remember it somewhere, at the side of the street, perhaps beside a pump.

2  a)Have you any tufa in your garden?  b) Have you seen a monk pooching around in your rockery, late at night?

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The late Jack Grimes told me that he and his brother, Fran, built this wall from the stones of the old church, that was replaced in 1938. Nothing goes to waste. It stands up proudly against the elements. They built it mainly with the  dry-stone technique. ‘Vinnie Gowan from The Gladstone Inn, used to bring us a crate of stout, now and again.’ It is a great vantage point for surveying the beach and the town. In recent years it has had a few patches but the lichens and weeds have blended the concrete into the older structure. Well done, lads.

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