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.
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.
(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?
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.