The Building Site

I grew up on the Rush Road in Skerries in the Holmpatrick Estate. To the front of our house we had the sea and behind the house we had the building site. That’s what we all called it; the ‘Building Site’. We were the lucky ones (the four semi-detached houses that had the building site over our back walls). The rest of the estate was developed out but the four-house gap behind our house remained a permanent feature of our childhood. We had a ready-made playground.

Two of the houses in the building site had brick walls and concrete bases. The other two houses didn’t make it beyond the foundations, leaving ditches and banks which were covered in a layer of weeds and wild-flowers. I remember, at a very young age, sitting on the banks picking daisies, dandelions, buttercups, poppies and these tiny blue and white flowers. There were lots of ladybirds and bees. We made daisy chains of course. We also used to hold the buttercups to our chins and if you saw a yellow reflection that meant you liked butter- just in case we weren’t sure. However, we were a bit wary of the dandelions. Something to do with wetting the bed. The poppies were my favourites though. Especially the closed ones because you could pop open the pod and gently tease out the petals to make a pink poppy. It was a bit creased and battered looking but I loved them – despite feeling a bit guilty. I often wonder where all those flowers are today.

Wildflowers of the 1970s

Nothing went to waste in the building site. We smashed up the old plasterboard and occasionally prised bricks free and sent them crashing down. We used the wood to make ramps for the bikes and bridges between the mounds. We climbed and ran around on top of the walls and played endless games of chasing and hide and seek. The abandoned JCB was our den. 

My little sister Jenny and her friend took the brick throwing to another level. My father had a call to the door about an incident. Denis and Betty McGlougllin lived in one of the houses beside the building site. If you climbed up on the wall of one of the half-built houses you could look into their garden. A large brick had mysteriously landed in through their downstairs toilet window and broken their toilet bowl. Jenny and her buddy had been spotted in the vicinity. They had history- such as the day they broke into Reddy’s house looking for biscuits and were spotted looking out the upstairs bedroom window. And the day they disappeared for hours only to be found in Bob’s Casino trying to shake down money from the games with the cascading coins. They were like a miniature Bonny and Clyde at the ripe age of 5 or 6 years old. I remember the questioning from my parents “Jenny you don’t happen to know anything about a brick that was thrown in Mr McGloughlin’s window?” ‘No”. (She was very loyal to her friend). “Are you sure”? Again, the picture of innocence “No. Don’t know” My parents continued. “The brick that went into the bathroom window and broke the toilet bowl?” She thought about it for a while and then eventually came out with “Oh! That brick!” The game was up. Guilty as charged. Mr McGloughlin was very understanding. He saw the funny side. Of course, now Jenny is a fine upstanding little sister. She got her wild days out of her system very early on. She still makes us all laugh.  

I also remember the day in the building site when I stopped playing. I’m not sure what age I was, maybe eleven or twelve, but I remember the feeling very clearly. I was playing show jumping with my friend. We were horses, jumping over the ditches.  A thought suddenly hit me that what we were doing was very silly.  I tried to continue but I couldn’t. I felt stupid. It was crystal clear to me that there were no horses and the ditches weren’t fences. I sat down and declared I was bored. We both agreed to call an end to the show jumping. That was the day I stopped playing.

When I got older, I heard that the developer went bankrupt. A decent man according to my parents. Building had stopped overnight and the site came to a standstill. Everything was left where it was, including the JCB. It makes me think of an outdoor version of Miss Havisham’s table where everything was frozen in time.

As children we were oblivious to the human story that we trampled on and trashed in our innocence. There was no malice intended. There’s another story yet to be written about the Rush Road in Skerries. Not about childhood innocence unfortunately. I would call it Great Expectations but I think that’s already taken.

The ‘Why’

I started an online “Write your book” course a couple of weeks back. My friend Margot put me on to it. It’s really interesting. Apparently, the big driving force behind writing is knowing your ‘Why’ and once you have that clear in your head everything else flows from that. It makes sense to me. When I think back to the day I was sitting in the kitchen last June, I remember a very clear ‘Why’ coming to me in terms of writing the blog. I have written on and off since then. It was a beautiful sunny day at the end of June. The kitchen was the usual chaos. Everybody was sorting themselves out for lunch around me. Michael had arrived in with the shopping. I was sitting at the top of the table looking out at the view. There was a full tide and the sea was a greenish blue. The islands were lit up by the sun and ready to receive the visitors that would head out in their boats, kayaks, paddle boards etc. Leo was packing his rucksack to head off to Shenick island on the SUP Board. The others were all heading out to meet their friends. The magnetic pull of the harbour was in full force and not just for the kids in the family.

Skerries Harbour

It was one of those Skerries days when everything that was going to happen would be outside, which was a good thing of course with the pandemic. Things had been relaxed since the first lockdown. The teenagers could now gather in groups (socially distant of course!) and all of the kids who should have been in places like America or Canada on their J1s were still in Skerries.  The grass area at the back of the harbour beside the Sea Pole (or ‘Casa’ as it became known) became the go-to place during the day where groups of kids would sit around in circles chatting with each other. A new game of ‘Spike Ball’ was also a big hit and there were mini tournaments taking place. At night they would decamp to the North Beach. The more beers that were had, as the night went on, the less socially distant it became. But they were outside which was enough to keep Covid at bay. Despite the obvious disappointment of not being able to travel, it was very clear they were all having a great Summer.

I needed help with the technological stuff and I was delaying Leo and testing his patience. WordPress was doing my head in. I was doing Leo’s head in. It just wasn’t making sense and all I wanted to do was to get started. I didn’t care about slick design. If I could only upload the odd photo, that would do. Easier said than done, but we got there in the end. Leo headed off down the field with the SUP Board and I battled away with the laptop. No outdoors for me that day. I was like a dog with a bone.

So, before I ever thought of writing, I was given a ‘Why’. (Thanks very much- some bloody ‘Why’!) But joking aside I am oddly grateful to have been given a ‘Why’. At the beginning, this ‘Why’ was very clear.  There were certain things I needed to say. And I did, up to a point. Nobody has tried to silence me yet, but I guess if they did, they would have to identify themselves- which wouldn’t be such a clever move! I still haven’t given up on the old ‘Why’, but it is evolving.  There’s so much more I could say but do I really want to dwell on the past the whole time? These are questions I find myself asking. Shit happens. Maybe time to move on?

Our friendly gnomes

I’m now sitting at the head of the same table but with a very different view, in more ways than one. The seagulls are creating quite the racket outside.  One of Margery’s garden gnomes is grinning in the window at me, which makes me smile. One of the kids has obviously gone to the trouble of putting the gnomes on the windowsills facing in. I suspect the aim is to freak Alice out.

It’s great to be back in the middle of the town. Moving from our home was far from easy but we are in a good place for the moment. This Summer Leo can cross the road with the SUP Board and head off to the islands. The others can walk around the corner to the harbour, ‘Casa’ and the Springboards and (hopefully) hang out with their friends. Since Monday Alice is walking to school. Happy days. No more fights with her younger brother in the car because she’s making him late for school….again.

I am also grateful to the two Foxes who got me thinking. To Margot who is always encouraging all of her friends to be positive and to Anna Fox who is running the online writing course.

And in the meantime I will keep working on the Why…..the Why Not?…..the Why the hell?…..the Why the hell not?….The Why us?……The Why not us?…So, back to the book. It would be an awful shame to waste a ready-made ‘Why’. Hmm….lots to think about.

It’s An Ill Wind That Blows

An Ill wind that blows.- A loss or misfortune usually benefits someone. For example, They lost everything when that old shed burned down, but they got rid of a lot of junk as well—it’s an ill wind. Dictionary.com

Seagulls at Skerries Pier

Today the wind was blowing from the east and oh boy was it cold! My eldest daughter was up early and walked around The Head with her friends. She came back a shade of purple saying how the wind had got into her bones. As they say here ‘the wind would cut you in two’. The phrase “it’s an ill wind that blows” came to mind.  I could go into the origin of the expression; John Heywood’s book of proverbs in 1546 or Shakespeare’s reference to it in Henry VI, but that would be a bit spoofy since I only looked it up. But I liked the Dictionary.com version above all because of the reference to sheds and junk. You see, sheds and junk is a topic that occupies my mind a lot at the moment, as we are clearing out and moving house again. There has been an ill wind blowing in our direction of late. I wonder who the beneficiaries are…..!

However, today I decided not to go into our shed (the barn) and try and sort out the junk. It was my birthday you see and besides I had much better offers. The breakfast on the harbour from Olive with Michael and my (purple) daughter for example. (Ok, so it was in the car because of Covid-  but it was good all the same). And the message from Jane, (my sister-in law), saying  I should go for a celebratory swim for the day that was in it – the North Strand, freezing temperature……. well, I figured it would be rude not to. “Of course I’ll go for a swim”.

In all honesty never in my life would I have imagined myself swimming in the Irish sea…. on the 11th February… with a group of swimmers around me singing Happy Birthday!  Not something I will easily forget. It was just great. The sea is the easy bit. It’s the numb, aching fingers and toes that linger on for an hour or so after. But I’ve read that cold water swimming augurs well in terms of staving off Alzheimer’s, so I figure it could be a good investment.

It was a birthday punctuated by coffee- Olive coffee, Goat in the Boat coffee with the kids after my swim, Gerry’s coffee at the station with Mary and another coffee on the pier with Michael after work; where we sat and watched the seagulls hovering on the wind gusting over the pier wall.

The seagulls always seem to capture the mood. When the wind is blowing, as it was today, they neatly line up in an orderly fashion on the grass over at Red Island, facing into the wind. They have it all figured out. I also watch them out of the kitchen window facing down the buzzard that has been hanging around of late. I’m so up for the seagulls. When we moved into the bungalow the buzzard paid a visit, perching on the fence outside, looking in the window. I hadn’t noticed him for a long time until recently, where he’s been a daily feature. It’s fascinating to watch him hovering above his prey and then going in for the kill. I can’t help but think that maybe the receiver sent him!

Our friend Pat bought the house which was a good outcome for us and has certainly made moving a lot easier. He is a good friend to us. He is family really and our eldest daughter will remain living in the house with her boyfriend (Pat’s son). We were laughing earlier about the big move she will have to make. She has to cross the corridor! We don’t have too far to go ourselves. We will be moving back down to the South Strand where we will be renting “Aunty’ Margery’s house. (Again, we have good friends who made this happen). I always knew Margery as ‘Aunty’ Margery because she was my friend Schira’s aunty. Schira lived next door to us and and my siblings and I practically grew up in the Reddy’s house. I remember how Margery and her sister ‘Aunty’ Breda would arrive for coffee every Sunday after mass. There was always lots of laughter.

The Buzzard

But back to sheds and junk. I will go back into the barn tomorrow. There’s lots of good stuff in there too. Stuff I didn’t want to deal with the last time we moved house. (Don’t they say that one man’s junk is another man’s treasure). I’m hoping the wind will change direction from an easterly and revert to our prevailing westerly wind. When you live on the east coast and the wind blows from the west, it feels as if it has your back.

I will finish with a well known Irish blessing that seems appropriate (that I looked up) “May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind always be at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face, and rains fall soft upon your fields. And until we meet again…….Think I’ll leave it at that.  

My Grandmother’s Words

On New Years Eve we were driving along in the car listening to Newstalk on the radio. Sean Moncrieff had a guest on called Susie Dent, who had written a book called Word Perfect about words and their origins. I found the conversation really interesting. I wasn’t aware, but I learned that Susie Dent is the word guru on Countdown. One word in particular that she mentioned, that caught my attention, was the word ‘respair’. Apparently, the English language had preferred to hang on to the word ‘despair’ but ‘respair’ had fallen away a long time ago. According to Susie Dent, it means fresh hope and a recovery from despair. When I looked at my phone later on in the day I noticed her name popping up on Twitter. Someone I follow had liked a tweet of hers where she said “My wish is that ‘respair’ will emerge from the forgotten pages of the dictionary and be on everyone’s lips in 2021”. Somehow, I don’t think anyone would argue with that wish. We’ve all had enough of the other word over the last year (and some…).

Tom Ryan and Katherine(Nana) Ryan (Carty)

When I was around sixteen and studying for my Leaving Certificate I would go to my grandmother’s house on Thursdays after school. She was helping me with my French and some Irish too. I preferred French. My grandmother, or Nana as we called her, lived down the end of the Balbriggan Road, only a few minutes from the school. I would knock on the window because most days she would invariably be in the living room watching television. I remember the living room fondly. The mantlepiece was one of those old brown tiled ones that were popular in the 1950s. There was an old clock in the middle, which was flanked by a soapstone monkey carving, (one of the ones where the monkeys are piled up on top of one another) and a little rabbit with a chip out of it. (My father and his younger brother David had bought her the rabbit when he was a child). There was also a shiny brass mortar shell casing that my grandfather had taken as a souvenir during his time on the battlefield of the Somme. Her beloved piano was to the left and her big adjustable chair was in the corner beside the window. The old black telephone was beside her on a small table. On the rare occasion it rang and she would glare at it for disturbing her peace. The Calor heater provided the backdrop smell and sound making the room very cozy.

She had her favourite television shows, Emmerdale Farm and Countdown. I usually had to wait until Countdown finished before we would start our lesson. I thought Countdown was boring and I didn’t like the noise of the Countdown clock so I would go and make the tea for both of us. Nana however was glued to Countdown. She was really good at it.  She had a love of words you see. A love of language, of literature and history.

I had an inkling, even at that age, that Nana wasn’t your ordinary grandmother. She was born in 1904 and in about 1921 she won a scholarship to University College Dublin (UCD). The story was that there was a move in Wexford Corporation to award the scholarship to the highest achieving boy. The father of the late Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister ) Brendan Corish, was chairman or mayor of the Corporation. He stood up at the meeting and said “The girl won it fair and square. She should get the scholarship”. This was how my grandmother became the first woman from Wexford to go to university. She boarded with the Loreto Nuns on Stephen’s Green during her time in UCD. When she graduated from university she didn’t disappoint her benefactors. She came first in her French degree. She got a medal but was disgusted because the money prize was awarded to the boy who came second. As a feminist that didn’t sit very well with her.

She had perfected her French during her university years where she spent her Summers in Concarneau in Brittany and in Coutances in Normandy. She photographed some of the villages destroyed in the First World World War. My father recalls looking at television footage of the Second World War where his mother could tell them who had lived in the bombed-out houses that were shown in the film reels. She would say “ ça c’est la maison de le docteur …Monsieur le …” the names escape him now so many years later.  She told him about the family she stayed with in Coutances where the father, son and grandson had fought in the Franco-Prussian war. They grew hyacinths in the sunroom. One of the plants was growing out of an old German pickelhaube helmet which still contained the skull of the unfortunate previous owner (or the ‘Boche’ as the French man contemptuously referred to him). In later years her daughter, my Aunty Mary and her husband John, took Nana to France with them on their annual family holidays. Nana stayed in the Manoir and joined the family during the day on the adjoining campsite. Mary told us that in the evenings Nana would sit in the square with the old French ladies chatting away like a native and none of them would believe that she was anything but French. In the campsite she was fondly known as Mamie by everyone. When she returned to Ireland off the Rosslare ferry she spent time visiting her sisters Betty and Peg in Wexford before returning to Skerries.

Nana (Mamie) -Summers in France in Seventies and Eighties

Her language lesson had a pattern. We would take a verb and go through all of the conjugations. Having gone through each tense, which she neatly wrote in columns, then it got to her favourite part of the lesson which was to talk about all the words that were related to the verb in question. She would talk at length about the origin of the word and list out reams of words that stemmed from or were related to that particular verb or word. She could also seamlessly cross between languages showing how most languages borrow so many words from each other. This was her passion. She told me once, for example, that the Swedish word for desk is ‘scrivbord’. The word ‘scríobh’ (pronounced the same) means “to write’ in Irish and ‘bord’ is the Irish word for table. Only about five years ago that little nugget came in handy. I was in Uppsala with Michael visiting my Swedish friend Maria and her parents, Gun and Lennart. I, along with my two friends Sinéad and Sheena, had stayed in Sweden for a magical five weeks when we were sixteen years old. (Sinéad stayed with Madeleine and Sheena with Ulrica). Now almost thirty years later I was back visiting the Rubbetoft family.  During the conversation Maria, for some reason, asked me what the English word was for “you know a table that you write at” I jokingly replied with the Swedish word ‘scrivbord” and, considering my knowledge of Swedish- which consists of; ‘jag ålskar dig’ (I love you) my reply took everyone by surprise. Thank you Nana. See, I was listening! Maria became a grandmother last week. Now there’s a lucky grandchild.

Nana had great stories. One of my favourites was the story about the time she saw the ghost when she was a young teacher in the Teacher Preparatory College at Ballyconnell in Falcarragh County Donegal. This was in the late 1920s. She taught languages and music. The director gave her a blank cheque to go to Piggots in Dublin to buy all the instruments for the orchestra. She told me that she was in bed one cold night and she woke up and the room had a very unnatural light. There was an old man in a tartan dressing gown sitting in front of the fire that was lighting in her room. She realised that she could see the flames of the fire through his body. When I asked her what she did she said she ducked under the bed covers and said a decade of the Rosary! The next day she told the nuns what happened and they said she had seen John Olphert, the former owner of the house. The nuns also said that under no circumstances was she to say anything as it wouldn’t do to frighten the young students. Apparently he always appeared around that time of year and there is a gravestone in the garden that reads “here lies John Olphert among the flowers that he loved”.

She cherished her time in Falcarragh and she married my grandfather there. I couldn’t engage her on the topic of her wedding. That was one she kept for herself. It appears that her family weren’t too keen on the idea of her marrying a soldier, so they had eloped and married with the help of the Loreto nuns in Falcarragh.

In 1989, when I was working in London, I came home for a visit. Nana was in Beaumont hospital. She had gallstones and had a series of three operations over one weekend.  Although she had already begun to repeat herself quite a lot as she got older, the operations were obviously just too much for her ageing body to take. Between the medication and the trauma she was confused and quite distressed. With the bright lights and the background noise in the hospital she had convinced herself that she was in Charles de Gaulle airport. I’ll never forget what she said to me …“and there I was in Charles De Gaulle airport, walking around in my slippers like Brian Boru” It was funny. But it was so sad too.  That was when I realised it would never be the same again.

In the years that followed Nana drifted into Alzheimers. She didn’t lose her words but they made less and less sense. It was heartbreaking to witness a great mind gently drift away. Her past came back to her. It was more real than the present she was living in. (Which wasn’t a bad thing). The staff in the nursing home would say that they wouldn’t know which language to expect her to speak. On some days she could be in France and some days back in her beloved Falcarragh speaking Irish. She also talked a lot about Wexford and her siblings and asked for Tom, her husband, when we visited.

I brought my new-born daughter to see Nana not long before she died. She was her first greatgrandchild. She held the baby tight and said “isn’t he a lovely little fella”. A couple of years later we bought our house on the beach. The name of the house was Falcarragh. It was named by the previous owners who were cousins of Michael’s father. Their mother was a Branagan. The Flanagans had a sister who was a nun in Falcarragh who died young from gastroenteritis. They named the house in her memory. Like my grandmother, we too have happy memories of our Falcarragh.

I like to think that Nana’s words live on in her family, in her children, grandchildren and greatgrandchildren. That they weren’t lost when she passed on in 1998. My father’s novels are evidence of this if any were needed. I am now starting his new novel ‘Landfall’ which is based in Elizabethan times. I never fail to be blown away by his knowledge of history and his way with words. I’m lucky to have him to run things by. He always has interesting insights for me.  He is his mother’s son for sure.

I ordered my copy of Susie Dent’s book “Word Perfect”. It’s a book my Nana would have enjoyed. I now follow Susie Dent  on Twitter.  Yesterday’s word was ‘crambazzled’: 19th Century Yorkshire Dialect for looking prematurely aged from excess drinking. Whilst feeling quite crambazzled myself I  am sure looking forward to a bit of respair in 2021.

The Dryrobe

So 2020 is nearly over. Good. Many storms to weather and they are not over yet. But that’s on a macro level. We are still standing and not everyone can say that. On a micro level we can focus on the nice stuff. We are looking forward to Christmas.

Christmas Greetings from Skerries Springboards! by Niamh Fardey -FARDS CARDS

Santa came early for me with a gift of the ‘must have’ pandemic accessory. (It’s a must have in Skerries anyway). My sister-in law Kathryn had very kindly put my name on a Dryrobe in her swimming group’s bulk order. The group name is “Fair Weather Swimmers”, but it seems Dryrobes were called in because the swimming activity strayed way beyond the fair weather to the positively Baltic weather. Orders of Dryrobes have gone through the roof apparently and there are waiting lists, so I was very lucky to get my hands on one.

I was a bit sheepish at first. The slagging about Dryrobes has taken off big time. There are hilarious sketches on Social Media about the Dryrobe brigade frequenting the coastal coffee shops talking about their “sunrise swims”. Skerries is no different.  Throughout the town you can spot groups in their Dryrobes going for their well-earned hot drinks after their dip in the Irish Sea. It’s like a damper, less glamourous version of apres-ski. It just shows; this pandemic has certainly made us all more resourceful. Beggars can’t be choosers and all that!

One thing I love is the fact that this new-found love for swimming in the Winter seems to attract all ages; from teenagers right up to octogenarians. The original cold-water swimmers in Skerries, “The Frosties,” have had to stagger their swims to avoid the hoard of enthusiastic newbies (like myself) that the high-tide attracts. On occasion the Springboards has been very busy, especially when the sun is shining. But even on the worst of days there is a fair trickle of hardy candidates willing to brave it.  It’s not just the Springboards that is popular. It’s everywhere.  In fact, a week ago we were braving some big waves and an awful lot of seaweed at the entrance to the harbour at the North Strand. And of course, there’s the deep water at the Captains, which is almost always (apart from the odd storm) an option. So, where there’s a will there’s a way.

Sometimes I hook up with the “Fair Weather Swimmers”, especially when Michael makes a guest appearance the odd weekend.  More often than not, I swim with “The Quiddles”.   My school friends, Carol and Margot are founding members and they cajole and encourage me. They even, on occasion, managed to persuade me to get out of my warm bed for a sunrise swim! I confess I was a bit smug when I mentioned it to the younger two when driving them to school, but there was little to no interest shown. Obviously not my target audience.

So back to my new Dryrobe. I got to use it for the first time at the Springboards the other morning.  I sat, after my swim, in the wind and rain on the concrete bench drinking my tea and chatting with the girls. I was completely cocooned and not convulsively shivering as I normally do. I reckon with a Dryrobe I could take on anything…… I could weather many a storm.  I could even handle the slagging that is sure to come my way for wearing a Dryrobe. 2021- Bring it on!

Sunrise Swim!

Curious Tales

The words ‘vexatious and frivolous’ get on my nerves. It’s almost as if the planning system is trying to dumb down exactly what these words mean.  If I had my way, I would replace the two words for what they really mean – ‘lies and bulls**t’.

There have been so many ‘WOW’ moments in our dealings with the planning system over the years. Moments of disbelief. These include our shock at the level of ‘lies and bulls**t’ that was written by the small minority of objectors to our plans. (And as for the lies and bulls**t in some planning reports).  We would often say to each other ‘you just couldn’t make this s**t up’. But they did, bucket loads of it and there seemed to be little we could do about it. The objectors had the perfect platform and in truth they had absolutely nothing to lose. The Irish Planning System is the ultimate platform for begrudgery.

Our planners told us that these comments would be ignored because they weren’t “relevant to planning issues” but really the lies should have been (and in future will be) called out for what they were. They are toxic and they contaminate an already broken system.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no issue with making objections. It’s an important part of the process and God knows there are very good reasons to object to some applications. My problem is when you make stuff up that you know is not true, but do it anyway. I have a problem with the dishonesty of some people who are prepared to say things and make ridiculous claims aimed solely at causing damage. I also have a problem with hypocrisy. It’s notable that if the original residents of the Rush road had been NIMBYs, the main objectors to Holmpatrick Cove wouldn’t have been able to move to the Rush road in the late 80s and 90s with their ‘Section Four’ plannings. Or the original residents might have objected to the big home extensions built without planning permission by some of the objectors to Holmpatrick Cove. Or even they might have pointed out that one of them was refused planning for a house in his garden by the planning Board because he lived in the main house and therefore “didn’t demonstrate a rural need”. He lived on the wrong side of the road obviously because that rule didn’t apply to to the big fella across the road. He can build an extra house in his garden no problem. You just got to be in with the right crowd.

But let’s face it, although the claims made by the objectors are pure NIMBYism and also  ‘vexatious and frivolous’, they were ultimately not the real reason our planning was refused by An Bord Pleanala. As I said before, the objectors created the ‘white noise’ required to muddy the waters where the big fish rule.

I refuse to go down the rabbit hole and give oxygen to the ‘lies and bulls**t’ where, as the Queen of Hearts said, “facts are what I say they are”. But it’s all there in the files and I can point anyone in the right direction if they are interested or even “curiouser and curiouser”. Frankly, we all have better things to do. Christmas is coming and hopefully the new year will bring a roadmap out of the pandemic we are all living with, and an end to lockdown. Speaking of lockdown. We’ve been playing the odd board game. Funny thing is I noticed recently that our old game of Snakes and Ladders had two snakes in the box at the end. I’m so done with that game now!

So, I have high hopes for 2021. I am writing a satirical play. I am inspired by George Orwell’s Animal Farm where “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”. I have all my characters (top dogs, big fish, snakes, vultures, bulls, donkeys….) and a ready-made plot.

On another note and speaking of the future, we still have 15 acres of land left on the Rush Road at Holmpatrick Cove. To the ‘vexatious and frivolous’ people – there’s no more hiding behind hedges; the gloves are off….and to the snakes in the grass and the big fish lurking in the shadows; after twenty years, your game is well and truly up.

The ‘Independent’ Planning Regulator

I have a problem with the Office of the planning regulator (OPR) and given the fact that we are a democracy and we all have freedom of speech (in theory anyway – given our libel laws), I think it is high time I got this off my chest. Most readers of this blog will not really know much about this new appointment of the planning regulator because it pretty much went under the radar. Fact is, the new planning regulator, Niall Cussen, was appointed in December 2018 by Minister Eoghan Murphy which was kind of nice given the fact that Mr Cussen was Mr Murphy’s principal advisor in the Department of Housing

Niall Cussen, Minister Eoghan Murphy and Joe Corr IPI

I read about the appointment a week before Christmas on the 18th December, 2018 on the digital copy of the Irish Times but couldn’t find it in the hard copy. Maybe I just missed it. I imagine it must have been printed in the newspaper, as this new position has similar power to a government minister except, of course, we don’t vote him or her in. It’s a big deal. If you don’t co-operate with the regulator it’s a criminal offence, (according to Colm Keena of the Irish Times). The regulator can “sue and be sued, acquire, hold and dispose of land or an interest in land and acquire, hold and dispose of any other property”. Wow. That’s pretty powerful.

 Mind you in his previous role as chief advisor, Mr Cussen was already very powerful. I remember distinctly a Newstalk interview with Minister Murphy where Ivan Yates chided Murphy over the influence that Mr Cussen had over him. Yates went on to write in the Independent in January 2019, in reference to the housing crisis; “Specifically the guidelines emanating from the chief planning officer, Niall Cussen, must be reappraised”. Naturally, I found these comments very interesting.

 So the aim of the appointment of an ‘independent’ planning regulator is to bring back public confidence in the planning system and, really importantly, to investigate ‘systemic’ problems, especially corruption risks. This is what Justice Mahon recommended in his planning tribunal. He also recommended that the regulator be appointed by an independent board, which I’m sure must have been the case. (I believe there were two main candidates in the running). But here’s my problem: how can the ultimate insider be objective or independent? How can someone who has pretty much written all the planning guidelines that came out of government – National Planning Framework-  National Spatial Strategy etc.- be objective when it comes to planning policy? I mean, if someone makes a complaint involving officials that the regulator has worked closely with in the Department of Housing, An Bord Pleánala, County Councils or the Planning Institute, it could be tricky. The police, for example, ended up appointing an outsider to be on the safe side. And without casting any aspersions, but not wanting to ignore the elephant in the room, we are in the middle of a housing crisis and the planning system has contributed greatly to getting us to where we are today. My question is, why would you imagine that the author of the planning policy over the last decade is going to suddenly make it all better? I do wonder….  

Mariane Finucane- God rest her, interviewed the regulator after his appointment. I listened to it. She didn’t give him an easy ride. I also heard the then president of the Irish Planning Institute, Joe Corr, being interviewed on Newstalk. He was very excited about the new appointment. But since then, it has been quiet. Occasionally you will hear about some comments on a Development Plan down the country or an out of town shopping centre in Cork. But for someone so powerful there has been very little public scrutiny for such a key national role. I follow it on Google Alerts, which keeps me up to speed. I also follow the OPR on Twitter and I was very touched to see that on a bank holiday Monday, some months ago, they followed me back!  (one of my 10 or so followers).

So, my interest was sparked last Sunday when I read an article in the Sunday Times by Colin Coyle about Johnny Ronan’s company (RGRE.) The CEO of RGRE had written to the Minister for Housing, Darragh O’Brien, complaining about Dublin County Council and about biased comments made by public officials. A lot about the article piqued my interest given our own story. The minister apparently referred them to the planning regulator. But wait for it, even though the Minister (who is the regulator’s boss) suggested that RGRE should take their concerns to the regulator, according to the article the regulator’s response was that they wont’ investigate cases where “An Bord Pleanala are involved”. Now that rules out an awful lot of planning in Ireland and certainly all of the Strategic Housing Development ones; the ones that go straight to the Board.

Thinking about it (and I’m open to correction) it doesn’t strike me that there is much of an appetite to investigate those allegations, which let’s face it, are pretty serious. Mahon was pretty strong that the regulator should investigate possible systemic problems and that sufficient checks and balances should go right up to the top. He also said that the regulator “has the job of reviewing corruption risks and to ensure that corruption risks are identified and corrected as they arise.” The regulator is charged with bringing back public confidence and presiding over a fair planning system.  So what’s the problem? Funny thing is that in his ‘Highlights of 2019’ statement Mr Cussen makes reference to the Mahon Tribunal saying; “The Tribunal recognised the need for an oversight body for the Irish planning process which is operated through the 31 local authorities, three  Regional Assemblies and An Bord Pleanála….”(my emphasis).  There is no logic in excluding a vast chunk of the planning process from scrutiny, so what’s going on?

Anyway, it all seems very strange to me. It wouldn’t exactly inspire me to take our complaint to the regulator. But then again our case “isn’t as straightforward as that…..” I think we had better wait until the outsider arrives.

FOOTNOTE:

The national press has today announced that the planning regulator has not examined one case out of the ninety one cases reported to the OPR in its first year…….That will really help with public confidence.

T(h)reading Water

A few days ago we went for a drive. An escape. We are limited to Dublin of course with the lockdown so we decided to drive south along the coast.  It was a beautiful sunny day and when we hit Malahide Michael suggested that we go for a swim in the Forty Foot in Sandycove. It was unplanned so we stopped off at Dunnes stores in Cornelscourt and picked up some togs and towels. My grandfather Barney, used to swim at the Forty Foot every day in the Summer after he retired to Dalkey. That was back in the days when it was a male only swimming place. No togs needed in those times! Apart from a look at the Forty Foot on a cold Winter’s day, I had never swum there. I was very taken by the place. It was magical with the sun shining on the water and heads bobbing in the sea.  It was like an outdoor Lido. It was lunchtime and it was obvious that office workers, amongst others, were having a lunchtime swim. Everyone was cheerfully soaking up the last of the late summer sunshine. We had a lovely swim.

Skerries Frosties- Holmpatrick Cove Swim

Skerries is a swimming town, which is no surprise really given that it has water on three sides. I come from a swimming family. My father taught generations of Skerries children to swim. First in the sea some time around 1960. They used a long pole with a hoop at the end at the Springboards.  Later on in 1968 Skerries Swimming Club moved to Gormanston College swimming pool, which is about 15k away from Skerries. When we were very young we used to go there in Charlie Fanning’s minibus. That was before we got the old Renault 12. My father brought myself and my siblings down every Saturday morning for our swimming lessons.

Gormanston was a great tradition. My father taught the littlest, who would swim a width and have to get out of the pool to run around again. You worked your way up the widths as you got better.  From Mr Ryan to Mr McGloughlin to Mr Maloney, Mr Sexton and then you would hit Mr Carmichael. Now, Mr Carmichael was a man dedicated to teaching swimming, but his children skills were lacking to say the least! He was terrifying- God rest him. He used to shout at the kids and blow his whistle. My siblings and I were lucky because we had our father as a bit of a cushion. There was a great motivation to get through this width quickly as you would be moved up to the sanctuary of the next session, where you got to swim lengths.

When my eldest children were young we had the same routine. We went to Gormanston every Saturday morning to swimming. My father had moved on from teaching the young kids.  After 37 years and a couple of operations he figured that if he didn’t give it up when my youngest brother finished, he might have to see his grandchildren out. So he wisely quit while he was ahead. When we brought our children my niece Ciara (on the Branagan side) was shepherding the little ones through the first width. It went from Ciara to Conor, to Barry, to David to Peter. Same process but a new generation of children who, as a sign of the times, now called their teachers by their first names! 

Gormanston was great. Lovely Art Deco architecture. We all have great memories going there. The Galas. The echos and smell of chlorine as we ran through the entrance. The conker (chestnut) trees in the grounds. The day Mr Carmichael fell in the pool. (There was a rumour going around that he couldn’t actually swim!) The struggle to get there on time and the disappearing goggles that drove me insane. (I always thought a good title for a parenting book would be Gumshields and Goggles!).  But the roof fell in on the swimming pool and it was closed down about seven years ago. My youngest didn’t get beyond widths to lengths, which was such a pity; the difference between an able swimmer and a great swimmer.

Skerries Swimming Club also has a series of sea races during the Summer. They date back as far as the 1920s. They had petered out but were revived by Leonard McGloughlin and friends in 1941. They have wonderful old trophies and names such as The Island Swim, The Round the Head Swim, The South Strand Swim. We had many a trophy on our mantlepiece growing up, gathering spools of thread, keys and general junk.  We even borrowed the Rose Bowl trophy for our youngest’s Christening! The sea races are still going strong today. Mr Carmichael used to run the races with Leonard in the early days. (nowadays it’s Barry Sexton and David McGloughlin). To Mr Carmichael’s credit he gave up endless hours voluntarily to Skerries Swimming Club and ran a tight ship. Nobody dared question the handicap he gave them. And if you didn’t go around the last buoy at the end of the race there was hell to pay! I remember, way back when I was heavily pregnant with my first child, myself and my friend Carol (who was heavily pregnant with her last child!) decided to do the swim from The Captains to the back of the harbour. Poor Mr Carmichael didn’t know where to look at the sight of the two quite heavily pregnant women.  A bad jellyfish sting put a hold on my sea racing career (not when I was pregnant thankfully) but I reckon after twenty years it might be time to make a come -back.

Over the years the town has tried to lobby for a swimming pool.  There was the Ballast Pit proposal that lots of us contributed to, but it got pulled from Skerries to Balbriggan. (we got our money back). But unfortunately a pool didn’t even get built in Balbriggan. And there was the pool we were going to build at Holmpatrick Cove. It would have been similar in size to the pool in Gormanston which had served us all well over the years before it was closed down. One of the few objectors said the pool wasn’t big enough, that it should be an Olympic sized pool. I love your thinking mate- but get real! He also said we didn’t need a hotel in Skerries or a “dead-end walkway”. I think that was more to do with the airstrip and hangar he uses which was built on the coast without planning permission. An airstrip that cuts across the coastal walkway. Anyway, I’m sure he is happy now as he gets to fly his little airplane totally uninterrupted. These days he has taken to giving a little victory flight over the bungalow we live in. I must let him know when we leave so he can return to his old route over Shenick Island, (the island with the Special Protection Area (SPA)- the European Directive to not disturb the birds!).

Speaking of swimming and Skerries, every Summer (except for this one of course due to Covid) we have Water Safety Week. It is a national initiative and like Skerries Swimming Club, it is all done on a voluntary basis. Watersafety week in Skerries has the biggest turnout nationally and there are waiting lists to get in. In 2019 I think about 400 kids took part. (I’m open to correction as it was probably even more than that). If you look at the South Strand on Watersafety week (or sometimes the North strand depending on which way the wind is blowing) there is a tented village set up for the week as the various classes go on.  Parents often down tools to spend a week on the beach and the picnics are legendary. I never quite got my act together on the baking front, but I was lucky that my friend Debbie is a great baker and she took pity on my kids over the years. The pay-off was the barbeque we had at the end of the week in our front garden. That was always a good night!

Watersafety week makes for hardy kids. They get put through the mill come rain or shine, staying in the water for up to half an hour. For the more senior swimmers at the Springboards, that can be twice a day as well as the Lifesaving theory classes on the grass. The supermarkets run out of hot chocolate that week! All the kids come away with great life skills and a lot of respect for the sea. This knowledge has helped two of my children and my niece and nephew, out of sticky situations in the past.

From hardy kids to hardy adults. We have a cold-water swimming group in Skerries called the Frosties. As you can probably guess, they swim all year round. Only the odd hurricane would deter them from their daily swim. I couldn’t contemplate doing that and you will never see me in the water for the annual Christmas swim. I’ll leave that to Michael and the kids who, along with the Branagan family, go in for their swim outside the old family home on the South Strand, before the customary Christmas drinks.

When Holmpatrick Cove was refused by An Bord Pleanala two walks to the site took place as a show of support for the development. The planning board had said that Holmpatrick Cove was rural and distant from the town. To show what a load of rubbish that was the Frosties decided to swim from the Springboards to Holmpatrick. Only in Skerries….God, I love this town!

When we came home from our trip to the Forty Foot the tide was in that evening and we felt we should round the day off with a swim in the Springboards. It was probably motivated by loyalty to Skerries, having “crossed over to the south side” earlier that day. So, with the sun lower in the sky and still glistening across the water, we had another swim. A great way to finish off a Summer season of sea swimming- two swims in the one day. The problem is that the sun is still shining- not a problem of course- but it’s making me feel guilty. Maybe there’s a few more dips in it before the Winter closes in….


 

Hazy Crazy Days of Summer

I grew up on the Rush Road in Skerries. I remember our first address was 113 Rush Road until the council changed the address to Holmpatrick, some time in the seventies. Michael still refers to our estate as the ‘new estate’ because that’s what the Holmpatrick estate was called when it was being built in the early 70s. Before it became the ‘new estate’ it was known as the ‘Twelve Acre Field’ and originally ‘Dick Derham’s Field’.  I have a very old photograph, taken from the late 1920s or early 30s of my grandfather, Barney Duignan (on my mother’s side) standing beside a pilot in an old light aircraft in the ‘Twelve  Acre Field’. My grandfather was a young police officer in the early days of the Free State and he spent some years as sergeant in Skerries. He married my grandmother, Rita Larkin from Balbriggan in 1935. My mother told me how her mother remembered her and her family hiding in a ditch when Balbriggan was burned by the Black and Tans during the War of Independence in 1920. Little did my grandfather know, that some day into the future, a daughter of his would rear her family around the very spot where he was standing.   

White Wall beach at Holmpatrick

I have great childhood memories growing up on the Rush Road (or the ‘Twelve Acre Field’). Particularly of the Summers where we spent endless hours on the beach across the road. The beach and the cliffs were our playground. We made boats out of sand and sat in them until the tide came in and undid our all our hard work. But that was the fun bit. Or castles decorated with shells and feathers.  The moment just before their demise was always great because the moats we had dug were filled with water and the castles looked amazing. There were mud ball fights and even jellyfish fights (the little purple non stingers). And then there was the pursuit of the perfect mud ball. If you got the darker wetter sand further up the beach at the ‘sinky sand’, for the center of the mud ball and then layered it gradually, topping if off with the light golden sand, you could create the perfect spherical mud ball. As well as aesthetics, the mud ball had to undergo some tests such as surviving being rolled down the sloped bit of the sea wall. It was important that it performed as well as it looked.   My older brother Alan seemed to have the art perfected. (the artist in him I suspect).  

Our father was an expert whistler.  When we heard his whistle it meant it was time for lunch/dinner or just time to come home as it was probably getting late. We would often bury our prize mud balls for safe keeping. We would dig them up later or even the next day and with a bit of touching up they were as good as new.

One time we discovered that the sea had eroded under the concrete sloped part of the White Wall and you could squeeze in underneath.  According to my brother and his friend it was like a giant cave inside. I was too afraid to go in and much to my older brothers’ annoyance I blurted out about it over the dinner table. I could see the look of alarm on my parents’ faces at the thoughts of the wall collapsing on the little boys. The Council were brought in and they duly arrived with their cement to fill it in. It was a bit of a patch job because some years later a large hole appeared in the road in front of the house and you could see the sea water when you looked in. We were even on the 9 o’clock news! A much bigger job was required and the large boulders from the quarry were brought in at that stage along with the new footpath and the steps. I preferred the muddy bank but I was a realist. I didn’t fancy our house falling into the sea.

I also remember the foghorn from the Rockabill lighthouse. The fog could arrive on a very hot day and clear up as swiftly as it arrived. One day I went swimming with my friend and the fog came down suddenly. The tide was half -way out and much to our shock a large seal came up out of the water right beside us, looked at us and gave a loud snort out of his nose. I remember us screaming and running frantically only to find that the water was getting deeper, not shallower.  It took us a while get our bearings and make our way back to the beach in the fog. I still remember the seal and the feeling of panic to this day.  But I really miss the sound of the foghorn.

The cliffs also provided hours of entertainment. One Summer my older brothers and their friends had a gang which they called ‘The Wallys’. (don’t ask- it must have meant something else in the 70s!). At first it wasn’t open to female members but obviously the boys were forward thinking and they allowed a few of us in once we passed certain tests. Myself and two of the girls managed to pass these pretty grueling tests, which was no mean feat. Tests included climbing up a steep part of the cliff and also jumping off and sliding down. There was also the test where you were tied up with ropes that were staked into the ground. You had to escape in a certain time. I think it was a minute. Not everyone passed but once you were in there were benefits to being a Wally! The kudos for one. Also we had influence. Cyril and Clare McGloughlin, our neighbours, owned the delicitessan in Skerries and their kids were proud Wally members too. They kindly provided French baguettes one day when we were having a picnic in our front garden. We had set up a couple of tents for the occasion. It was the first time I had ever eaten or even  seen a French baguette. It was the real deal. It even had poppy seeds on it.

When we got a bit older my siblings along with our friends would venture further afield. We would go to the island and climb the Martello tower. Or we would walk along the beach as far as the waterfall (it wasn’t much of a waterfall really) or to the Devil’s Chair.  Do you know that if you go around the Devil’s Chair three times at midnight the Devil will appear to you? We weren’t brave enough to try that one out. But it’s true. We went to the Smuggler’s Cave of course and I remember squeezing myself through the loop you could do inside. That was scary enough but when I think about the time (on one of our rare trips inland), we walked along the top wall of the tower of Baldungan Castle, I still feel weak at the thought. One wrong move and we were gone. I knew better not to tell my parents about that one at the time. I often wonder how we all survived. Thankfully Baldungan tower is blocked off nowadays.

Often my father would take us out to Shenick Island to catch crabs. He has some gaff hooks and he knows all the crab holes both on Shenick and at Red Island.  I remember him leaping from rock to rock with us following him. He would sometimes put his arm in up to his shoulder to catch a particularly stubborn crab.  The younger kids would be left propped on a rock if the going got tough only to be collected once the bucket was full.  It was very precarious. He only stopped catching crabs a few years ago but my youngest brother and my middle son have inherited ‘the knowledge’ from him!  

His dressed crab is delicious and gives his great friend and neighbour, Cyril, a run for his money with regards his dressed crab recipe.  Sadly Cyril passed not long ago. Cyril was a great supporter of our plans for the Rush Road. Luckily for the people of Skerries Cyril’s son Conor has kept his recipe going.  If you go to the Farmer’s Market at Skerries Mills on a Saturday morning you can buy the best dressed crab in Ireland. (well maybe the second best!!).

There’s no doubt that Rush Road in Skerries was a great place to grow up. We were very lucky and I think we knew it even back then.  My Grandfather Barney went on to become a Chief Superintendent in the Guards. He was an utterly decent and honest man. I miss him very much and I often wish he was here today. I’ve no doubt he would have some good advice to give us……

Sergeant Barney Duignan at the Twelve Acre Field c.1930

Show Ponies and Circling the Wagons

The RDS (Royal Dublin Society) in Ballsbridge plays host to the big shows and events in the country. Trade fairs, the Young Scientist Competition, the Spring Show, the Horse Show, music concerts and much more. It is of course the home of Leinster Rugby too.  I have gone to a few of the Leinster matches but I am happy to leave the tickets to the real Leinster fans in the house. A ticket would be wasted on me as I am a confessed fair-weather supporter, especially if Leinster are playing abroad. Now then I’m interested.

Jessica Springsteen Dublin Horse Show 2016 – Image Erin Gillmore/Noelle Floyd

I have quite a few memories of trips to the RDS. When I was very young I went to the Spring Show with my friend Millie and her Mum. Her Mum allowed us to go around a bit on our own and we were feeling very grown up until we innocently wandered out the main entrance. It was only after we started to cry that they let us back in again! I also have the memories of sitting final college exams in the RDS, another lifetime ago (with Millie again!). And of course there’s the annual Féis Ceoil which I have been to on occasion. It’s quite a serious event. It is a national classical music competition. I will never forget the time I went to wake up my younger daughter to bring her to the Féis. When I pulled back the bed covers to coax her out of bed I let out a scream when I saw a bright orange vision in the bed. Oh my God! Of all days, the Féis Ceoil was not the day to be bright orange. She had decided to apply a liberal amount of fake tan the night before. It was St Patrick’s day as it happens. All she needed was the green and white and she had full Irish flag – green, white and orange! We found a dress with long sleeves in her big sister’s wardrobe and a pair of tights, so we managed to cover up most of it. Even Cif Cream didn’t budge it so I have a great memory of watching her play her violin and all I could see were two bright orange hands. The things you remember!

I particularly remember another time we were in the RDS in the Summer of 2016. Myself and Michael were invited to the Horse Show by our friends as their guests. We had a lovely lunch whiling away the afternoon watching the show jumping. I remember the silliest details such as the fact that Bruce Springsteen’s daughter was one of the jockeys, but beyond that I wasn’t very clued-in to the horses.

But speaking of show ponies one thing I do remember about that afternoon is that a certain individual made a point of approaching us at the table. We knew him well. He had advised us in the past and there never had been any animosity. On this occasion he was advising us again, but this time unsolicited. You see, it had been about five months since we had lodged planning for our development and we were still waiting for news from the local council. He was very familiar with Holmpatrick Cove.  Of course he was, he’d only worked with us on the original submission to the Development Plan. He was our expert advisor at the time. He was hell bent on telling us that he’d been approached by one of the neighbours to put in an objection and he of course didn’t do it. He agreed with Michael who said he couldn’t have anyway because he would have been conflicted. In all it was an odd exchange.

Weird thing was, fast forward six months to February and it was a different story.  We had got the planning from the council and he was now working for ‘the neighbour’. (One of the ones that had lost the court case, had to pay costs, remember “wholly incredible” and all that). He put in an appeal to An Bord Pleanála. So, what had happened in the meantime that made him change his mind? Must have been worthwhile. I noticed he was appointed to a new role giving advice on a national level and that he was speaking on platforms with the big fish/big dogs or whatever you want to call them. He was even more important than he was back at the Horse Show. We were utterly shocked by the about-turn. Here he was (well there was an attempt at a Chinese wall) attacking his own planning advice. Quite the betrayal. We were appalled by the breach of trust.

He is a member of a club, not the Pony Club but an Institute that has rules and a very serious Professional Code of Conduct. From its Golden Years, around the turn of this century, to today, it is a very professional body. It’s motto is “One for all and all for one” no, only joking. It’s something like proud of … not sure…can’t quite remember. It’s obviously a very nice club to be a member of because they have your back, especially if you are very important.

I reported the conflict to the club.  It was very simple. How can you advise us and then attack your own advice a few years later? You can’t of course. It’s in their Code.  He wasn’t happy about the complaint. He was agitated. He turned to someone who he thought might have been able to persuade us to withdraw the complaint.  He told that contact that he wasn’t the one “that was the bad bastard”. I wonder who was…The contact warned us you see. Be very careful, “the system always protects itself”. No truer word. It does. He had told the club he didn’t advise us on our development but then I sent them the old submission. His own handwriting was all over it. An inconvenient truth. Anyway, they circled the wagons. Nothing to see here. Move along and don’t be bothering us. There must have been another code that I missed. A code of silence…for the life of me I still can’t find the section called Omertá Code on their Website. 

Of course, the RDS is a lot quieter these days with the pandemic still going strong. The Féis was cancelled this year. I don’t think my daughter was too upset, to put it mildly!  However, I am happy to report that Leinster were back in form last Saturday. They beat Munster but unfortunately had to play to an empty stadium. If you looked very closely at the TV screen, the real fans from this household were flying the flag, as they are known to do. A welcome bit of normality returned to this uneven world.