To See a World in a Grain of Sand /and Eternity in an Hour

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Ailsa Craig Granite

When we were boys we collected birds’ eggs. It’s illegal now, as I understand. It’s even illegal to possess them, without some sort of permit. My criminal past is all behind me. The evidence has been destroyed by time, by swaps, malevolent rivals, faulty cardboard boxes crushed under junk and a gradual feeling that the eggs were probably better off if left in the nests to hatch. ‘Nest’ would be overstating things with regard to most sea birds. The birds rely on camouflage. The eggs may be in a depression scraped in the beach or under the lee of a rock. In some cases the eggs are laid on vertiginous rocky ledges and shaped in such a way as to prevent them rolling off. Like Mr. Wobbly Man, the weight is at one end.

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There are wonderful maps on Lambay Island showing the nesting grounds of the various birds and the times at which they laid. This was to facilitate commercial exploitation of a valuable source of protein, until the advent of large-scale poultry farming. How do you like your eggs in the morning? Preferably with no little feathery scaldy inside.

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The luminous midsummer night gave way to a bleak and blustery dawn. The wind picked up and Ailsa Craig peeped above the horizon. A pyramid rising from the sea; a hanging garden viewed from afar; ‘Paddy’s Milestone,’ a landmark for homesick labourers leaving Ireland to earn a few pounds in the potato fields of Scotland. It’s the plug of an ancient volcano from the time when Scotland’s Highlands tore away from the Appalachians and the Atlantic Ocean swelled up to fill the void. It took some time. It is still happening. ‘Preposterous time’ William Goldsmith calls it, a length of time too vast for our puny minds to comprehend. Time enough for living things to evolve, to swim in the oceans and rivers, to creep upon the Earth and take to the air on flimsy wings, colonising islands and cliffs and laying their eggs in relative safety.

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The sun emerged. The  rock took on some colour. It crept closer. We could see the white of gannet colonies on the slopes. The Solan Goose. A delicacy. Robby Burns’s father was said to be in the solan goose trade. I would never have dared, had it been possible, to try to collect a gannet’s egg. It has angry eyes. It is armed with a fearsome weapon. It takes no prisoners. Someone suggested a dip off the jetty. The early morning cold and a vast brown jellyfish, knocked that idea on the head. The chef prepared porridge with honey, to put some volcanic warmth into his torpid crew. It worked. We went ashore. That’s probably illegal, to judge by all the cautionary notices. The island is for sale for a paltry £1,500,000. Would the Marquess of Ailsa take a cheque? I doubt it. The birds live rent free on what is, and always has been, their territory. It is now officially a bird sanctuary. There goes the egg and solan goose trade. The smugglers gave up centuries ago and migrated to Rush, in County Dublin. The granite quarry is abandoned. The railway could still run if enough muscle power could be made available. (That was powerful porridge.)

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Modernity has rendered all the industry of Ailsa Craig obsolete. There are living quarters abandoned while still undergoing renovation. There is no need for coal or oil. Engine rooms are filled with rusty metal. The fog horns have fallen silent, their windpipes and lungs decayed and shattered. Modern navigational devices, guided from space, can see through fog and darkness. There is a Marie Celeste air about everything: old newspapers and books musty with damp; broken windows; lath-and -plaster hanging from walls and ceilings; tattered and battered furniture; roof-trees giving way under the weight of time and neglect. Only the lighthouse, automated, with  pristine solar panels, abides. There is no shortage of stones.

The Scots invented the sport of curling, just as they invented golf. Golf has taken over the world. It has become a vast industry, while curling remains a minority sport, an amalgam of bowls and housework. For golf you need an array of specialised equipment. For curling you need some ice, a polished stone and an accomplice with a sweeping brush. It has become an Olympic sport. It has a mesmeric, balletic quality about it. Even the sweeping becomes dramatic. The best stones come from Ailsa Craig. The granite, blue-hone granite, is fine-grained and takes a high polish. A curling stone is a piece of sculpture in its own right. Intriguingly, Ailsa Craig granite crops up on the North Strand in Skerries, several hundred miles to the south, carried by the gyre of the Irish Sea tides. The stones are polished almost as smooth as the curling stones by their long and grinding journey. They lie, speckled like birds’ eggs on the shelving strand, where Vikings once grounded their keels.

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When the keel begins to converse with the stones on the bottom, it is time to leave. Time to pack up memories and impressions of this melancholy but beautiful place and hand it back to the stewardship of rabbits and teeming flocks of seabirds. We headed northwards to Troon and the teeming hordes of golf pilgrims. I took a little pebble with me; probably illegal. It’s about three billion years old, give or take a few million. I like old things.

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I left plenty behind.

Blow-ins and Little Green Men

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“Grandad,” said my four year old grandson, “what do Aliens call us?” Little boys delight in questions and jokes. Ideally a question can also be a joke. ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ That’s a cracker, as the late, great Frank Carson used to say. ‘Frank Carson, News at Ten, Balbriggan.’  Something to do with the way he told them. ‘They’re building new houses in Balbriggan. They’ve no chimneys on them. The people have to carry the smoke out in buckets. Ha,ha,ha!’ Strange goings-on in Balbriggan indeed. But I have digressed—by four miles. ‘Why did the chewing gum cross the road?’ Another cracker. ‘Because it was stuck to the chicken’s foot. Boom, boom!.’ “No, but Grandad, what do Aliens call us?” Pay attention. Stop rambling. “I don’t know. What do Aliens call us?”  “They call us Aliens! because they think we look funny and we are Aliens to them.” That’s a good point. Poor bare, forked creatures. We do look a bit weird, considered objectively. It is a well known fact that Aliens abduct people all the time and carry them away in flying saucers. They take them apart to see what makes them tick. Or is it ‘thick’?

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I have a lifetime’s experience of taking things apart to see what’s wrong with them; clocks, washing machines, bikes. I marvel at the ingenuity of the makers; the beauty of the finely machined parts; the intricacy of the mechanisms, but sadly, I have had very little success in reassembling them into working order…..probably just like the Aliens. People who have been dismantled and reassembled in flying saucers, always seem to have a screw loose here and there. Aliens are not as clever as they’re cracked up to be. Anyway, they’re just blow-ins. Came down with the last shower. Who do they think they are, coming down here and telling us what make us tick?  (Watch the spelling there.) Crowd of bloody know-alls. Probably came over the Hoar Rock Hill playin’ penny whistles.

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The news is that out there, beyond our solar system, there is a star, not unlike our Sun and a planet possibly similar to ours, with an atmosphere that could possibly sustain life. It’s 1400 light years away, in round figures. Next thing we’ll have bloody Aliens, who set out around the time of our Dark Ages, travelling at the speed of light to come here and tell us how to do things. Damned cheek! We’re doing fine, thank you very much. Bloody blow-ins! We are intelligent life-forms, as you have already ascertained from your numerous dissections and experiments. And by the way….I would like my frontal lobe and my liver back please…..if it’s not too inconvenient, of course.

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Intelligent life at work.

It is probably a shameful thing to admit, but my parents were blow-ins to Skerries, one in 1903 and the other in 1939. I was born here, which might make me a ‘local’. I might even be entitled to voice an opinion, tentatively, in an assembly of the people. In a few hundred years I may be able pass myself off as a native. If I live that long, my contemporaries will all be dead. I will be able to bang on about things that blow-ins and young whipper-snappers couldn’t possibly know about.  Nobody will be able to contradict me. Bred, born and buttered here, as a well known (native) Skerries man once said. While I’m at it, I must confess that my late and much loved mother-in-law was a Balbriggan woman, which means that I married, 51 years ago, a half-Balbriggan girl.  A desirable alien, perhaps. I’m grateful to my blow-in parents too.

I blame the Great Northern Railway. Since the 1830s railways have been stirring the gene pool, sending blow-ins all around the country to intermingle, putting it delicately, with the natives. This is supposed to be good for the health of the race. All sorts of hop-off-me thumb jackeens and culchies, intermingling with real Skerries people…..Don’t get me started. That lad, Saint Patrick, bloody Welshman; your men, the Vikings; bloody Normans! We were grand the way we were. Now we have AIB Bank encouraging decent, hard-working people with bright, engaging children, to put down roots here in our town. Where will it all end?

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Orson Welles scared the daylights out of people with his Martian invasion. That was only on the radio. We never even got to see them. There was panic and a rush to judgement. They do look a bit funny all the same. It’s rude to stare. If they had ears, now, like we have.  Like normal earthlings have….Ears would be good.

 There was this Skerries woman who was married to a Balbriggan man for fifty years. The poor, decent man died. Friends, sympathising with her at the funeral spoke of what a good man he had been. “He was,”she agreed, wistfully. “He was a good man…..for a stranger.” Maybe it’s time to give blow-ins and Aliens a break. It’s a very small, round world. We all get our turn.

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Proposal for the Inclusion of Skerries on the Ancient East Trail.

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The ‘Bishop Window.’

Sent by Pope Celestine in 432 A.D. Patrick arrived with some few companions, at the island that still bears his name, close to the picturesque town of Skerries in Fingal. This was his first landfall on his return to Ireland, where he had once laboured as a child slave, tending sheep on the Hill of Slemish. He came to convert to Christianity, the people who had once captured him from his home in Roman Britain. The magnanimity and courage of this man, whose community had long been ravaged by Irish raiders, is astounding to contemplate. His earlier experience of Ireland had been one of suffering and loneliness. He survived by dint of faith in God and determination to escape. He returned as a bishop of the Roman church, not to exact revenge but to change Ireland forever. Wherever the Irish have settled around the world, the name of Patrick is honoured and venerated as the Apostle of Ireland. His mission began in Skerries.

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Of the many legends that grew up around the story of Patrick, the first one began here. The imprint of his foot can be seen in the rock at Red Island where he first stepped ashore to begin his work. A more colourful version is that he leapt in fury from his island, to challenge the Skerries people over the theft of his goat. Such was the force of his anger that his foot sank into the rock on impact. He was too late. The goat had been killed and eaten by the Skerries people. The thieves denied their guilt and all knowledge of the goat, whereupon the animal inside them bleated loudly, giving the game away.

This episode was a source of embarrassment to Skerries people for sixteen hundred years. The taunt “Skerry Goats” caused many an altercation with neighbouring villages over the centuries. In 1988 a plaque depicting the goat was placed on Saint Patrick’s Church in Skerries, by way of restitution to the saint for the theft and in recognition that the goat has become a much loved symbol of the town and its societies and clubs.

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Everything that was ours, was restored to us because of God and our invaluable friends.

Scholars maintain that the influence of the island church remained strong after Patrick’s time,despite it having been the likeliest location of the first Viking raid in 798 A.D. Saint Malachy convened a major synod on the island in 1148 A.D. to discuss re-integration of the Irish church with the Roman system of discipline and organisation. In the thirteenth century the monks moved to the mainland and rebuilt their monastery at Holmpatrick, beside the present Holmpatrick Church. An Ogham stone commemorates Peter Mann, the last abbot at the time of the Reformation and destruction of the monasteries.

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                                                                                                                                                               Holmpatrick Church.

Patrick’s last resting place is Downpatrick, nestling beside the Mourne Mountains, clearly visible from the island where he began his great mission. It is as if he had almost completed a full circle in his life’s pilgrimage.

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A sad footnote to the story of Patrick is the destruction of his crozier. It was long preserved at Ballyboughal, (The Town of the Staff) near Skerries. It was believed to have miraculous powers. It was removed to Armagh and later to Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin. In 1538 Archbishop Brown of Dublin ordered that the staff be stripped of its gold and jewelled ornamentation. He then publicly burned the wooden staff as a relic of old superstition.

Further suggestions for a Saint Patrick  Heritage Centre.

Map and images of places closely associated with Patrick’ mission, with lines radiating out from Skerries: Tara, Slane,Croagh Patrick, Lough Derg, Armagh etc.

Panoramic map of the world, with radiating lines showing how his influence started in Skerries. Show world landmarks ‘Greened’ for Saint Patrick’s day.

High definition images of early Christian churches and relics, as a compendium of the Christian influence introduced by Patrick and others.

Images of High Crosses, The Book of Kells and other illuminated manuscripts.

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Patrick at Tara.

CGI images and model of the ruined monastery on the island.

Aerial views of Skerries Islands.

Live camera feed from nesting sites on the islands.

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Arrival of the clergy and plenary session of the Synod of 1148 (file pictures)

With the development of an Ancient East Trail, based partly on the historical riches of Ireland’s Early Christian Monuments, it would be logical to celebrate Skerries as the starting point and fulcrum of Patrick’s mission to change the Irish people. Without his efforts the ‘Island of Saints and Scholars’ might never have come about and our history would have been  the poorer.

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Seafood, Saints, Sinners and Pyke.

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Not a bad haul from a morning walk. The crab was a little bonus. The razor clam and sea urchin were empty, just decoration. Catching razors is a whole different kettle of fish, to mangle a phrase. Sea urchins were esteemed in Classical times, as a delicacy. Some people eat them raw.  Not me. Maybe I got that wrong. Maybe they were steamed. I apologised to the crab, but I took him all the same. At last I have found the place where the mussels are not covered in barnacles. There is a lot of work in removing barnacles. The cockles I took, to complete the song and because they squirted water at me. It is a sin to refuse the good things that nature provides.  I left 47,000,000 for you at the next low tide. It’s a rough estimate, give or take a bucketful. Skerries, I emphasise, is a Blue Flag beach.

I heard a man singing heresy once, long ago. She wheeled her wheelbarrow—From Wearmouth to Jarrow—Crying cockles and mussels—Alive, alive o——– Well, you know what happens to heretics.  Not a bad rhyme, all the same, although it would have been a hell of a push for Molly Malone, leaving her in no fit state for her other, more extra-curricular activities, if gossip is to be believed.  The Venerable Bede, Doctor of the Church, lived for much of his life in Jarrow. I’m sure he would have welcomed some fresh seafood to lighten the sparse monastic diet, whatever about Mollly’s other wares. But no. Molly was a Dubliner Isn’t there a statue of her in Dublin? If heresy were to take hold—and Heaven forfend—she would be trundling her little cart from Sandscale to Barrow, or anywhere else that happened to rhyme. The Venerable Bede himself, would denounce such heresy. He has been stuck in the mud at ‘Venerable’ for a thousand years. Isn’t it time he was upgraded to ‘Saint’?  His life’s course took him from Wearmouth as far as Jarrow where he completed his great work. Perhaps he has been venerated for too long. Give him the big prize.

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I went another time, to catch crabs. I did reasonably well. I had intended to photograph all the crab ‘courses’ to complete a directory for those who come after me and be venerated for all time, like the good monk…..but it rained. I had started out in summer clothes but autumn took a little lash at my presumption. (Presumption is a sin)  I will attach my recipe as an appendix to the directory.

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When Doc in Cannery Row waded in the tidal pools of Monterey, he mused about life. Long before Cousteau, he made marine life fascinating. The ebb and flow of the tide never fail to throw up something interesting. A good friend goes to Joe May’s bar on the harbour, to conduct tidal studies. He is quite an expert. The storms have eroded the sand and marine clay undisturbed, possibly, since the Ice age. The pristine new pools are populated at low tide, by shrimp and little dabs. You can detect the fish only by the slight disturbance of the sand. Wonderful camouflage. Do you remember Professor Magnus Pyke on childrens’ television.?  He was an expert. He waved his arms extravagantly to make his point. He explained why beaches are perpetually replenished and how stones float ashore. I know this because we had a houseful of children and saw a lot of childrens’ television. I still hate Scooby Doo. The monster was always Mr. Dettweiler, the villainous campground manager, (insert name and occupation as desired) in a costume far too big for him. It was the same story every time. The kids insisted on watching it even though they despised it too. It postponed homework. It has taken forty years  to get that off my chest. I digress. Professor Magnus Pyke showed how stones are colonised by seaweed and how, with the rising tide, they are lifted and borne by the currents and waves, to a beach near you. I notice too that the mussel, a by-word and a bivalve for stability, the original stick-in-the mud, can levitate in the same way, with his cargo of fellow-travelling barnacles.

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Saint Patrick, lifted by missionary zeal, got around a lot more than Venerable Bede. He settled for a time on his island. The monastery did well until the Vikings arrived. The monks eventually moved ashore and probably enjoyed a better diet at Holmpatrick. (A little plug there for Fingal’s splendid market gardening industry.)

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We went on the Viking Splash with some children. The driver was very entertaining. As we came up from College Green into Nassau Street, he indicated the statue of Molly Malone, showing her wares to the public. He suggested discreetly, out of deference to young listeners, that she sold other commodities besides shellfish. ‘I can’t say what she sold but, that shop on your right might give yiz a clue.’  The shop sells high quality door furniture. The sign reads Knobs and Knockers. Work it out for yourself. Since Classical times, shellfish have been regarded as the food of Venus. Work that one out also.

An old Skerries man ventured as far as London on his holidays. He didn’t think much of it. He couldn’t understand the language at all, at all. ‘Frank,’ he said to the barman, on his return, ‘did you ever hear tell of venerable diseases?’  ‘Venerable what?’  ‘Diseases. Every time I went to wash me hands I saw these warnings about venerable diseases.’  Maybe Bede was wise to stay in his monastery.

On a lighter note, the mussels were delicious.

Visitors to Skerries (1) Woar mongers.

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There is a story in one of the sagas, concerning a Viking king and his shipwright. The great new  ship was finished. The king gave a feast in his hall, to celebrate. When he brought his guests outside to admire his ship, he found that somebody had cut notches of varying depths all along the top planks, destroying the beauty of the vessel. He was furious and threatened terrible vengeance on the culprit. The shipwright stepped forward stating that he had done it himself. The king demanded an explanation.

“I was not satisfied with the line,” said the shipwright. “It is good, but not perfect. When I have planed it down to the level of the notches, it will be perfect.”

The king was doubtful but he gave him the time and a stay of execution.  The shipwright set to work with adze and plane, under the watchful eye of his king. When he was finished the line was sublime, a thing of beauty. The king smiled, acknowledging the art of the shipwright. The longship was ready to bring rapine and terror to the coasts and estuaries of Europe and cross the seas to far away Iceland, Greenland and North America. The longship was graceful, sinuous, built to flex with the waves, a dragon ship in every way. A terrible beauty, to use a well-worn phrase.

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Another saga tells how a fleet from Iceland, sailing down by Faroe and Orkney, arrived at the Isle of Man. The crews discussed an impending war between Sitric, King of Dublin and a great war-chief from the south, Brian Boru. Brian’s reputation as a warrior and leader, swayed many of them to throw in their lot with him. The prospects of pay and loot were better with Brian. There is a tradition that many of the Viking fleet that came to take part in the subsequent battle of Clontarf, grounded their keels at Skerries. It is probable that they landed at the Hoar Rock, where there is deep water right up to the shore, at high tide and safe ground at low tide.

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That was a thousand years ago, this year. Imagine the longships gliding to shore, one after another. You can see the men lowering their sails, shipping their oars, letting their vessels surge forward, until they come to rest, with a crunch, on the shelving strand. They would have said ‘strand’ not ‘beach.’  The battle did not result in the expulsion of the Vikings from Ireland. They had been here for two centuries. They had built the first real towns. Their genes persist in the Irish. They accommodated themselves to the new order, if semi-anarchy can be called a new order. Their family names survive: Grimes, Seaver, Mac Lochlainn in its many forms, the son of the Viking. They named what they saw: Water-fjord, Lamb-ey, Skar-eys, Vik(inge)low,Ireland’s-ey. In Greenland they named a fjord ‘Loud shouting’. Can’t you hear their voices echoing back from the cliffs and from the glaciers? In New England—-‘Wonder-Strands.’ In some Irish cities, there is an Oxmantown, an area allocated to the Ostmen, the easterners, after the political changes brought about by Brian’s victory at Clontarf. Brian was not there to see it. His killer, Brodir was pursued for days and weeks, until he was found and killed on Corrin Hill, beside Fermoy.  It is the hill with the tall stone cross at the summit. Brodir was caught on the north side of the hill, a place of accursed memory, where the Sun never shines.

Their cousins appeared in Ireland a century and a half after the Battle of Clontarf, the Norsemen of Normandy. The reverberations of that invasion are still with us, as are their castles and their genes.

There is an old account from The Hebrides, of how the people, Vikings, gave a barrel of ale to the sea every year, in return for a plentiful supply of fish and woar. Until a generation ago, the farmers of Fingal drew cartloads of woar from the island and from the strands, after the autumn gales. There was a ‘woar war’ between the farmers of Skerries and Rush. It had to do with payment to the landlord for every cartload. The Rush men encroached on Skerries strand, without paying the charge. Maybe they were right. The Vikings would have sorted it all out, including the landlord, in jig time. Nowadays, the fertiliser comes in plastic sacks and woar is used to wrap sushi and make cosmetics.

Eric the Red was banished from Iceland, after a dispute over some wooden benches. He lent them to a neighbour for a wedding, as you do. The neighbour refused to give them back. Erik took an axe to him, as you might. There are no real trees in Iceland. Timber is precious. He took his family to Greenland. Leif Ericsson sailed to Dublin to get a cargo of  Yuletide ale for his father. Christmas ale; my father referred to it always as ‘refreshments.’ It is just possible that, on the way back, Eric and his crew sampled some of the refreshments——–because they missed Greenland and found North America. (Italian Americans vehemently dispute this.) They also found endless supplies of timber, a suitable Christmas gift for his father. (We know, of course, that Saint Brendan, the intrepid Kerryman, got there centuries before any of them. America should, by rights, belong to ‘The Kingdom’.)

The ‘sea roads’ joined  the Viking world like a spider web. Skerries is  a dewdrop on a filament of that great web. Kipling caught it well:

‘What is woman, that you forsake her

And the hearth fire and the home acre,

To go with the old, grey, widow-maker?

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Doesn’t any large vessel, appearing over the horizon, carry that element of beauty and menace? Be not alarmed. It’s one of ours.

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