I saw him once. The big fish. It was evening time, just coming up to Christmas 2017. I got off the LUAS tram and I went into Arnotts to get a coffee in the Abbey Street coffee shop. He was sitting in the corner, deep in conversation with another man. I got a shock when I saw him in the flesh.
I was coming from the Criminal Courts where I was on jury duty. The trial I was on lasted over two weeks and concluded just before Christmas. It was a trial about child abuse. There’s something very uncomfortable about looking into the minute details of other peoples’ lives. But it’s necessary for justice to prevail.
It was three months after our planning for Holmpatrick Cove had been refused by An Bord Pleanála. We were still reeling at the injustice of a decision that defied logic. Eight years and our vision wiped away at the eleventh hour by faceless civil servants. The council had given a very strong grant in the January of that year, so we had every good reason to expect a positive outcome. When I walked into the coffee shop that evening it was all very raw.
There was a free table beside the two men and I sat down whilst waiting for my coffee. He would not have known me, the big fish. I looked like your average mother doing her Christmas shopping. I took out my shopping list and feigned studying it studiously. But I wasn’t thinking about my list. I was catching snippets of the conversation going on beside me. It was about building heights and apartment standards. He was doing most of the talking and the other man was listening intently and nodding in agreement. As a casual observer (maybe not that casual) it was clear to me who was in command. I got up to collect the coffee and they went to leave. I had caught the tail end of their meeting. I mean coffee. He passed by me on my way back to my table and he caught my eye. Was there some flicker of recognition from home perhaps? I’m not sure. But I sure knew who he was and how his world had impacted mine.
Apropos of coffee. Michael and I make a point of escaping for our coffee every day. It’s a time out. I think in modern parlance they call it ‘self-care’. In Skerries we are very lucky because we have so many great coffee shops and it is safe to say that you would struggle to get a bad coffee anywhere in the town. Before Covid hit we would sit in Goat in The Boat on the harbour or Olive Café. During the lockdown we found Gerry at the station where he does great coffee too. When the regulations eased you could buy your coffee and sit in the station platform at a social distance. It was a great way to catch up with friends. Nowadays we often take Gerry’s coffees to Red Island where we sit in the car and look at the view of the islands and the town. Sometimes we drive down the pier and watch the boats and the action in the harbour. It’s good for the soul. We sold our boat last year. It was great fun for the kids, extended family and friends. It was especially great when Michael took the kids out on the boat and I could enjoy a quiet house. A win-win for all parties!
In this country we have certainly embraced coffee culture. Ireland is a small pond where big fish could lose the run of themselves. A lot is discussed over cups of coffee between friends: current or ex colleagues, current or ex committee members, current or ex fellow presidents and members of institutes. Plans are made, deals done and promises made. It could be very advantageous, especially if there’s promotions or board appointments to be filled….Join the dots. We have.
I wonder if there’s any chance we could get minutes of these coffee meetings under Freedom of Information? Somehow, I suspect there’s as much chance as James Gogarty had when he famously asked if he would get a receipt from Ray Burke during the last planning tribunal. The reply he got was “Will we f**k” If you ask me, it’s all very fishy!
Every five years the local council votes on a new plan for their area. It is called the County Development Plan. There is approximately a two year lead up to this process which is known as the Draft Development Plan. At the end of the two year period the local councillors get to vote in the plan that will shape their area over the next 5 years. The public participate in this process by making proposals to their local council and commenting on submissions made by third parties. The executive planners in the council are the administrators of this democratic process.
In 2010 we made our submission to the Draft Development Plan process for Holmpatrick Cove. In truth we had made a submission in 2009 but it was returned because it was sent in at the wrong stage of the Development Plan process. (It was site-specific and at that stage they were dealing with strategic plans). The 2009 initial proposal was ambitious. A bit too ambitious as we were talking about Heritage Centres and Bird-Watching platforms and I think even an Aquarium!). We had been to Lahinch, you see, earlier that year. That’s where the idea for Holmpatrick Cove evolved. They had it all there: hotel, swimming pool, aquarium, Heritage Centre down the road. So, we thought well, why not use our site in Skerries? We knew we had a great site. Strange decisions had been made in the Planning Board around our entrance. We knew they were based on vexatious claims so we could deal with that in the future.
The council had supported our plans for Holmpatrick Cove. By this I mean the executive planners who we went to in the first instance. They were going to propose it themselves in their January 2010 Manager’s Report. But that never happened; there was the famous unexplained U-turn. The local councillors did support our plans so, encouraged by them, we put our submission into the Draft Development Plan in May, 2010. At this point the plan was for a hotel, swimming pool, 24 contemporary houses on the residential lands, a park, training spaces and a coastal walkway- Holmpatrick Cove.
The first commentary on our proposal (Manager’s Report) that came out of the council was in September 2010. Another “Screening Report” followed which went on public display. The executive had changed their tune, to put it mildly. Holmpatrick Cove was now “highly undesirable” It was rural, distant, it had no public transport, highly sensitive, highly visible, it would damage the birds on island, it would damage air quality and climate. The report implied that the developers couldn’t be trusted, the entrance was sub-standard, there were plenty of hotels in the area, there was already public paths on the land. If what was said was true, Holmpatrick Cove would have been scandalous. But it wasn’t true. Our proposal was unrecognizable. Only possibly a municipal dump could have elicited such strong objection from the executive planners. The report was aimed at the 24 councillors who were to vote on the proposal in March 2011.
In January of 2011 we had our opportunity to respond to these reports. It was a stage in the Draft Plan that also allowed the public to make their views known. We made our submission dealing with the ‘mis-information’ in the Manager’s and Screening Reports. We included our Court Judgment and Order regarding the entrance and past refusals. All of the submissions made during that stage were accessible on the Council’s public web-site. Except ours. Our submission was redacted/obliterated. They mustn’t have liked it.
The council executives got to reply to the January submissions in their February Manager’s Report. “There were a large number of submissions received both in support and opposing Amendments 5.11 and 5.12 (collectively addressed as Holmpatrick).” That’s what they said, the Executive in Fingal Co Co. They were referring to Holmpatrick Cove. The truth is there were 19 against Holmpatrick Cove (including a round robin) and 125 in support (including all of the main sports clubs and societies in the town). The bias shown in the opening statement continued throughout the report. Previous errors we had drawn their attention to were repeated. Holmpatrick Cove was stilll “highly undesirable” for the same five reasons. (they mustn’t have read the Court Judgment because they still mentioned the substandard access and previous refusals). They must have hidden our reply very well because it was completely ignored. It was now February 2011 and a month before the elected councillors would get to vote on the new County Development Plan
The final Development Plan meeting took place on March 23rd 2011. The councillors came armed with the February 2011 Manager’s Report (they were saving on printing). All 24 councillors were at the meeting and twenty of them spoke. Many of the councillors had bought into it the Manager’s Reports. Why wouldn’t they? The socialists put in a motion to take Holmpatrick Cove out of the County Development Plan. The socialist councillor remarked at the meeting in March that she “was struck by the Manager’s lengthy and detailed reply. I haven’t seen such an emphatic reply to an objective”. So, she urged her fellow councillors to support her motion to remove Holmpatrick Cove from the Development Plan.
The executive did their best to defend their reports. Some points were obviously troublesome so there was a bit of clarification done only after the councillors’ debate had concluded. Apparently there were some facts in the Manager’s Reports that they couldn’t defend any more…there is a 33 bus that runs past the site….we haven’t I think anywhere in the report indicated numbers of submissions for or against….In relation to the access onto the road …there were a number of Board Pleanala refusals….we gave the factual panning history…the proposer has won a high court case…and that’s quite correct…and it should be said on the record. There seems to be a suggestion that the proposer has reneged on these lands, in ceding these lands….we were just simply answering the obvious question -were the lands in our control? No.…..In relation to hotels …there is a permission for a hotel at Milverton……you have existing hotels in the area, the Bracken Court Hotel…there are hotels in the area. We did make mention that there were local paths across the site….our information is probably incorrect….In relation to the reduction of Open Space lands where we did say 50%……that was a rough estimation on our part…….You can’t say that it’s visible from all areas of Skerries but it is visible. The senior planners tried their best to undermine Holmpatrick Cove- even at one stage displaying an incorrect site plan, the one that had been returned in 2009 with the Heritage Centre and Bird Watching building. This was done to illustrate to the councillors how much land would be taken up by the development. It was misleading to say the least. Perhaps an innocent mistake?
But local democracy won on that occasion. The local councillors defended the proposal and managed to persuade enough councillors to trust that they had their community’s best interest at heart. The vote went in favour of Holmpatrick Cove. Holmpatrick Cove was on a Statutory footing in the 2011-17 Development Plan.
If anyone was to search the public record to read the official minutes of that meeting they would think the councillors who voted for Holmpatrick Cove must have been on some pretty strong substances to have voted the way they did. The public record consists of a Manager’s Report and a record of the way the vote went. But here’s the shocking bit. When the minutes were published a month later the heading on the minutes said “The following report by the Manager, which had been considered, was CONSIDERED” (to you and I that means that the following report is the one that was debated). But it wasn’t the report that had been ‘considered’. The report that was debated was substituted by a new, altered even more negative report. For example there were now 11 numbered reasons why Holmpatrick Cove was “highly undesirable.” The public record is false.
At the time we asked them why they altered the minutes and got a non-response. Earlier this year we contacted the council again. We provided detail and wanted the public record amended. The official response was “ The Planning History is on the Public Record”. No it’s not.
It is now 2020 and we are mid-way through the 2017-23 Development Plan. Holmpatrick Cove fell between two Development Plans. The council did grant planning permission for Holmpatrick Cove but it was refused by the planning board in 2017. That decision is a re-play of 2010/11.(For example they ignored the Court Judgment and preferred to mention the past refusals due to the substandard entrance etc. etc.). Also, the Statutory Objectives were taken away and exchanged by a ‘Non-Statutory’ Masterplan by the Fingal executive just before the refusal. Oh dear! That didn’t help. But fear not they did leave in one of the three Statutory Objectives- the one about ceding lands to Fingal. Anyway that’s another story and I’m sure there were at least 19 happy people (including the round robin!). Well maybe at least 21. (Must not forget those in the long grass).
The truth is the 2010/11 reports were biased, there were false and exaggerated statements made to further an agenda. One-sided information was disseminated in a deliberate manner to influence public opinion. Facts were manipulated and half-truths were presented as fact. The flow of information was controlled and information was withheld from the public. Loaded language was used to produce an emotional rather than a rational response. This is what the senior executives in the council presided over in 2011. Oh! and by the way, I have just outlined the definition of Propaganda.
Two nights ago we went to the Lighthouse Cinema to see The Sound of Music. Our eldest son had bought us all tickets. (He studies film and this was special because it was a 4k restoration of the original film). What a movie! Our youngest had never seen it before which I found hard to believe. Our eldest joked afterwards about the parallels in the end scene when the Von Trapp family are walking over the mountains into Switzerland, leaving everything behind them. They all agreed that they were looking forward to the day that we do the same with the field!
It was December 2010 and we were sitting in the Circuit Court at the Four Courts listening to the opposite side’s expert witness give evidence about the boundary. This surveyor was giving a lengthy description about how boundaries can be marked up. He said that often in the past he could use a scrap of paper to mark out a boundary. He recalled being in a pub and going into the toilet to get some of the old- style toilet paper (the one like tracing paper) and using it to agree a boundary. I will never forget it. Justice Joseph Matthews’ removed his glasses and addressed the court. “Sounds like a lot of crap to me”. It was the one occasion, over the three-day trial, that the tension was broken in the courtroom and there was loud outburst of nervous laughter. I suspect it was only our side and a few independent observers that saw the funny side, but it was funny. Justice Matthews was a wise, soft spoken judge and his remark stood out in such a sombre setting. There was a lot at stake.
We were in court because of a good old-fashioned boundary dispute. Six of the neighbours to the north had suddenly decided that they owned half our entrance after almost twenty years living there. They were relying on an old Land Registry map that had “a bit of a dip in it”. This was around the time the Holmpatrick Cove proposal had been submitted into the council when they were doing up their new County Development Plan. If it turned out that they did own half the entrance, well then we would have been goosed. Our surveyor had given evidence before hand. He explained very carefully how boundary lines on the map are “not conclusive” evidence of ownership. He explained how much of these boundary lines were drawn up in India using satellite imagery and using the features on the ground as a reference. He had carried out a “Ground Truth Survey” on our behalf and he went into great detail about how this is the most accurate and equitable method of determining boundaries. He said if we all relied only on the lines on the maps we would have people hopping over walls, hedges, over ditches claiming land the far side of well-established boundaries. (Believe me he’s was right. When you own a field they come at you from all angles).
So, Justice Matthews didn’t appear to be buying the less compelling evidence about the toilet paper. When I think about that toilet paper it brings me right back to my days in the Holy Faith Convent in Skerries. That was the standard toilet paper in the early days of the old convent. It even had ceramic dispensers on the wall where the box was inserted for ease of access. It was not very practical to say the least but sometimes we used it in art class to trace with (not surveys granted) but it was more use there than in the school toilets,
If I close my eyes I can bring myself back to that old convent building. I can walk around and I remember every room. It was an imposing building. I remember the old gym hall with the parquet flooring and the large sash windows. We would sit on the old green mats and deconstruct the old rubber beneath the mats. (They got very shabby in the end). I remember the green terrazzo floors in the bathrooms and the locker rooms. I remember the beautifully carved stair-cases. The high ceilings. I remember the corridor with the statue of the Virgin Mary at the end. Sr Imelda’s shop was on the right-hand side going down and the junior and senior infants classes were on the left. At break time Sr Imelda would drag open the concertina shutter. We would all be pressed up against it to get our hands on a Big Time Bar or maybe even a Caffrey’s Snowball. She was a force to be reckoned with, Sr Imelda. She would shout at us all to stand back and God forbid if she caught you running up and down the corridor.
One of my favourite memories was when we were brought up in single file to go to the little chapel. I loved it as much for the journey as the destination. We were now entering ‘Nun Only’ territory as we had to go through the Nun’s area to get upstairs. I loved the view from the corridor upstairs. You could see the two windmills and right up to the back of Dr Healy’s house and the house beside it with the sun-room on an upper floor. It was magical.
The chapel itself was an awesome space. Not that I gave much time to prayer, but I did love the architecture: the beautiful stained-glass window, the high ceilings and the wood carvings. Outside the building I also remember the orchard with the apple trees. There was a little farm and I remember Mr Coleman showing us the hedgehog. There was an ornamental fishpond and a large concrete yard where we played skipping with a big rope. As we got older we moved out to the prefabs in the field. It wasn’t quite the same as being in the main building.
My grandfather had been brought up by the Nuns in this convent. His father died putting decorations on a Christmas tree in 1903. He fell off the ladder. His mother died of ‘a broken heart’ a year later, leaving three orphans: my grandfather aged three and his two older sisters. His father and his two brothers had come up from Tipperary some years before and the three brothers bought a pub each between Drumcondra and Dorset Street. My grandfather’s one is the one with the man and the clock at the top of Dorset Street. It was once called Ryan and Son (my grandfather). The three orphans were left in the care of the Holy Faith Nuns in Skerries where we believe they were well cared for. However, as in most good Irish stories, by the time my grandfather reached 18, his inheritance had been spent by the executors- probably at the bar in the three pubs! In any case at that time he was in the Dublin Fusileers and fighting in the battle of the Somme. He was lucky. He survived his gun-shot wound. By the time the Second World War came along he moved back out to Skerries with my Grandmother and their young children because he was afraid Dublin would be bombed.
My grandmother, Mrs Ryan, taught French and Irish (and even Spanish after school) for many years in the convent. She retired just before I started school. My grandfather’s first cousin, Sr Alophonsus, lived there. She didn’t teach and I’m not quite sure what her role was but I suspect it was in the kitchen due to her large girth. She had a very sweet tooth and I often benefited to the tune of a packet of Toffo or a Caramel bar that she would root out of the pockets in her robes. I was always happy to run into her.
Back to our run-in in the courts. Michael told our story in court. It was easy to tell. It was the truth. The opposite side’s evidence (delivered by the objector in chief to our planning) was described in the written Court Judgment as “wholly incredible”. It was fantasy: “always knew I owned the land the far side of the hedge but it never occurred to me to mention it” in my voluminous objections, “the hole cut in the hedge for us to enter was always there” (you just couldn’t see it) etc. etc. We won our case. In fact, we made a bit of national history when Justice Matthews ordered that the boundary between us and the six neighbours was to be registered by GPS co-ordinates in the Property Registration Authority. This was a first in Ireland. We now had conclusive evidence that our entrance was not “substandard in width”. We knew this of course. It had been accurately reflected in our planning documents. It was 11.5 meters and the Court Order ruled that our sightlines could not be blocked. The neighbours had to remove the fence they erected in our laneway and put it all back to the way it was.
In the months leading up to the court case there had been a tirade of legal letters and much wasting of police time. The neighbours would plant the laurels and we would remove them and give them to the police. They would complain to the police of theft only to find that the police had the laurels in the back yard. It was nonsense. I witnessed them planting them one day. They were being advised by the friend across the road and there was great laughter. They were checking to make sure they blocked the view of the road from our entrance – our sightlines. They didn’t notice me approaching and observing what was going on.
After the court case I got a phone from a dog walker intervening on behalf of one of the families in the court case. Costs had been awarded against the six parties and the dog walker was wondering if I would do something for them. “Isn’t it unfortunate when families fall out”. Ironically, I found their planning records (the opposite side’s) a few months later. There it was in black and white (or in fact magenta and black as it was on an old microfiche). Our entrance was clearly marked out on their own architectural drawings measuring 12-meters. They should have brought these documents along to court and we all could have avoided costs let alone stress and falling out. Justice Matthews was right. It was all “a lot of crap”.
We sent the Court Judgment and the Court Order to the Planning Appeals Board in 2017 when Holmpatrick Cove was under appeal. We were half expecting an apology because the three previous refusals were all based on the so called “substandard entrance in terms of width” and the resulting traffic hazard. It was the first time we were at the Planning Board since our court case. Funny thing was they didn’t pay any attention. In fact the inspector, in his assessment of the entrance, made no reference to the Court case and preferred to refer to the previous refusals where planning was refused because the entrance was “substandard in width”. The Court Case was an inconvenient truth.
As regards the Holy Faith Convent building. It was knocked down in the 1980s. I lived in one of the homes built where the old convent was. It was a lovely home. But it’s an awful shame that the old convent building was lost.
We have another viewing of our house tomorrow. My first thoughts are “Oh God the boys rooms are a mess” (the girls rooms aren’t much better to be honest). So I tell them they have to tidy their rooms. Occasionally I’ll get the comment “but why would we bother? It’s not like we want to sell the house” Fair point and part of me would like to agree but we are low on options and we have our pride to consider!
You see we are in receivership. Being in receivership makes you totally powerless. (Don’t know why but I can’t help thinking of tumbleweed as an analogy!). I could go on about the fact the lender appointed a receiver in the middle of a global pandemic. That the lender appointed a receiver when there was both market and political instability. I could go on about the fact that they sold our land at a bargain basement price. I could go on about the fact that because they sold the land so cheap the house (our home) has to be sold. (It’s a simple equation: cheap land + house = loan + 15% interest =Happy days for lender). I could go on about the fact that we opened the national newspaper and found our house listed as “bargain of the week.” I could go on about the extra security that was given over to avoid eviction seven days before Christmas. I could go on about the fact that we are left completely in the dark. And there’s more. A lot more. But what’s the point? The lender and the receiver are legally within their rights to do what they are doing whatever about the human side of it all. Before the lender appointed the receiver in March, the land was for sale. The selling agent was shocked that the land didn’t sell for a strong price. He told us the feedback from developers was that it was the planning history. So all of this (the receivership, the loss of the home…) is just collateral damage. As one of our local councilors said to us“This is the human cost of corruption”.
In 2018 we sold our old family home on the beach to keep the show on the road. (We had roll-up interest to pay). It was a great home and we have wonderful memories there: christenings, communions, birthday parties, etc. We had great neighbours too. Originally we had bought the bungalow we are living in for the land that connected Holmpatrick Cove to the town. It made sense to complete the Coastal Walkway. When we told the children we were moving to the bungalow our younger daughter wasn’t too keen on the idea. I remember laughing when she said “I’m not moving to that hideous house on the hill”. Granted it was in need of updating and even she would agree now that it wasn’t at all hideous. It’s a great house. We did it up and made a lovely home. On balance we will have great memories from the couple of years we spent here too. What’s more our nephew and his wife bought our old home on the beach. It’s in good hands.
Lately we have been living a bit of a nomadic life. Our stuff is spread between three different locations: here, storage and my parent’s house. Not ideal. At the beginning of March and under pressure from our lender we had to move to my parent’s house down the road. Apart from the obvious upset and disruption we had a lovely ten days there. We had evenings sitting around the dinner table and chatting. My parents enjoyed the company and so did we. There was lots of music again. (it had been a while). The girls played their violins. My mother loved it. They even played the piano with her. It was not an unhappy time. It ended abruptly however when Taoiseach Varadkar made the big announcement about the Covid19 crisis. We were all gathered in the living room watching the speech. About five police cars had pulled in across the road with their headlights and flashing red lights beaming in the window. (Obviously they too were listening to the announcement). It added a touch of drama to the scene. The perfect backdrop. We went back to the bungalow the next day. We made a call given the national emergency. We didn’t want to put my parents at risk.
My middle son stayed with my parents to keep them company. He was happy to cocoon with them as he was studying for his first year college exams. (He did great) Also I think my mother’s cooking was an added incentive.
Apropos of cooking and much to the amusement of the kids, I have been experimenting a bit of late. A new diet. I like to call it a new lifestyle. It’s a distraction from other things…….My eldest son came in late, not so long ago, after a very good night out with his friends. (A few beers were had). When he opened the door this foul, putrid smell hit him like a brick wall. I’m not sure how to take this but he said that I had been cooking such weird things of late that he just presumed it was another of my experiments. (sadly he was right). He went to bed but he told me later he spent half the night (what was left of it anyway) with his head stuck out the Velux window because the smell was so bad. I still can’t believe he didn’t try and at least find the source. And Oh God that smell! We will never forget it. Let’s just say it was supposed to be a bone broth. When our youngest son woke us up the next day saying there was a disgusting smell in the house Michael went to investigate. The chicken carcass was black. (It reminded me of my trip to the National Museum when we saw the poor mummified bog men). It took at least two weeks to get the smell out of the house. Bone broths have now been officially added to my banned list.
My father used to say about my grandmother (his own mother) that he and his siblings learned to cook in self-defence. Nana Ryan, as we called her, was always buried in a book on topics such as Medieval history or maybe learning a new language. Housekeeping and cooking got in the way. In our case the kids do the baking for the same reason (self defence). In fairness it might have something to do with the time I managed to hoover a perfect round hole in a cake that two of the children had baked. They were arguing because the younger one had put too many sprinkles on top. I don’t know why, but it seemed perfectly logical to hold the nozzle of the hoover over the cake to remove the excess sprinkles. I don’t need to tell you that that didn’t turn out well.
I spoke to all five of our children the other evening. I said if you had a choice what would you choose. Choices were: keep the house and put everything that has happened to us behind us and move on OR let the house go and continue to shine a light on what went on. You would think this was a tough choice but all five, from the 13 year old to my 23 year old, unhesitatingly chose the second option. With the risk of sounding proud. I think Michael and I have done a pretty good job. We are proud of them.
Back to the house viewing tomorrow. Now, do I light some scented candles and brew some coffee? (Baking fresh bread is not an available option for reasons outlined above) Or do I whip up a lovely fresh batch of bone broth………?
I have been thinking a lot about power lately. We are all familiar with the saying “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. But it’s not as simple as that really. I read a summary of a study in the Journal of Applied Science. It was interesting and it made sense to me. In summary the conclusion was that power doesn’t corrupt, it “heightens pre-existing tendencies”. (A bit like a benign dictatorship and a malevolent dictatorship). As Abraham Lincoln said “if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Think Donald Trump and Jacinda Ardern. Need I say more!
Michael and I have first hand experience witnessing power at play over the years. Most particularly when we attended meetings with the senior planning executives in our local council offices. Of all the meetings over the years one meeting in particular stands out in our minds, even ten years on. We had been trying to get this meeting for almost four months because we wanted an explanation as to why the council (the senior planning executives) had done a complete U-turn on Holmpatrick Cove. To make a long story short we had put our proposals for Holmpatrick Cove to the executive planners almost a year earlier, in the Summer of 2009. And they liked it. There were meetings and exchanges over a six month period. The final meeting included a site visit where the County Manager and his top planning official said they were going to include the Holmpatrick Cove proposal in the Draft Development Plan. We agreed to send the details: maps, layouts etc. in before Christmas so they could include it in the Manager’s Report in January.
January came and there was no Holmpatrick Cove in the Manager’s Report. Attempts by the local councillors to get answers were met with silence. The shutters had come down. Finally, in late April we were granted an audience. I will never forget it. Myself, Michael (and a planning consultant that we brought along with us), were ushered up in the lift. We were brought to a room where three senior planning executives were sitting at the far side of a large table. To say the atmosphere was tense is an understatement. What we witnessed in that meeting was a demonstration of power in all its glory. Our questions went unanswered. The message was that Holmpatrick Cove was going no-where. They wanted it closed down. They had changed their tune completely. How odd, given that these were the people who we had spoken to and who supported Holmpatrick Cove months before. One of them had even gone so far to say in the field, “sure I’d buy one of the houses myself”.
Michael and I refer to that meeting as ‘The High Priests’. Which given our experiences in the planning system, is a fair analogy. It is the modern-day equivalent of the power of the Catholic Church in the last century when bishops and priests called the shots. That power enjoyed by the church is as potent as the power that planning executives in County Councils, in Government Departments and in An Bord Pleanála enjoy. And as for the powers transferred to the new Planning Regulator: now that power is eye watering.
The planner we had along with us at that ‘High Priests’ meeting did not hang around. You can’t blame him. Planning consultants working in the private sector depend on executive planners’ decisions for their bread and butter. They cannot afford to get on the bad side of them. This is how the system works. Developers too depend on the planners and know only too well where the real power is now, post Mahon Tribunal. As recent as last year we lost a sale because a council planning official told the developer that he was against Holmpatrick Cove and wouldn’t have given planning. (The council had given planning permission). The developer walked, based on this personal opinion. Needless to say if this hadn’t happened we would not be where we are today. That’s pretty powerful stuff really considering the collateral damage. But that’s only one example of damage done to us over the years. For example the twelve months that followed on from the ‘High Priests’ Meeting’ shocked us to the core. But that is another story.
It’s important not to confuse the local councillors with the planning executives. Councillors are elected and if you don’t like them, they will lose their seats. They are accountable. That’s democracy and generally it works. We all know what went on in the ‘bad old days’ but it would be remiss not to say that the vast majority of elected representatives and civil servants in the executive are good hard-working people who carry out their duties in the public interest. We can only hope that the right people end up in power. (I’m thinking of the ‘pre-existing tendency theory’) Here in Skerries and Balbriggan we are lucky with our public representatives, especially the fresh voices in the area. Michael and I are grateful for their support now and in the past.
So, in conclusion. The big question (and one we and our local councillors never got an answer to) regarding the ‘High Priests’ Meeting’ is, why the change of mind? Why go from supporting to attacking a plan overnight? We know there were powerful forces working against us. We believe more from the Trump than the Arderne playbook. Quoting from the barrister in the famous Mr Moonlight trial (the one with the slurry pit) “The human condition can only withstand so much co-incidence until it says. That’s not co-incidence. That’s planned.” Now where would I get a good deal on a box of whistles? I can think of a few places I would like to send some………
About seven months ago (or maybe longer) I was lying awake at about three am. My mind was racing. It was a time when we had a bit more hope about keeping our planning alive because we were, or so we thought, about to sign a deal with another funder which would allow us to move forward and go back in for planning. Most importantly we would get our home and the land around it, out of the security. However, just like numerous other deals that came before that, they pulled out at the eleventh hour because a planner advised them to. (That happened a few weeks before Christmas).
I couldn’t get back to sleep that night and didn’t want to wake Michael up because unusually he wasn’t awake and to be honest, it is a rare occasion that we get a full night sleep. So, I decided I would make myself a cup of tea and go out and sit on the deck for a bit. It was a cold night and I was wrapped up in a big blanket. The tide was fully in and I could hear the sea. It wasn’t roaring as it sometimes does when it funnels in between Lambay and Shenick Island. It was a gentle lapping sound. It was pitch black too but I was conscious of what was out there…. the islands and the Rockabill lighthouse beyond.
I grew up looking out at Shenick Island. Of all the islands it is my favourite. It’s the boss. It’s monumental. The other islands seem to fall in line behind it. Now, a modern-day planner might take issue with the Martello Tower, describing it as “Visually Intrusive’. They probably would have refused planning permission. But I like it. I missed Shenick when I lived away from it and I don’t know how many times a day I look out at it. Depending on the tides, the light and the time of day, the view is never the same. I never tire of it.
It was really peaceful out on the deck in the darkness. I was thinking about the land of course but for a change I was thinking about the people that lived there long, long before we ever walked this earth. We had done an archaeological study as part of our planning and I was fascinated to learn that we had a Bronze Age Industrial site on our land. I was thinking about the glamping we were hoping to do in front of the house and how it would be great to echo the Iron Age villages in our design. I was wondering about these people, what they looked like, how they lived. They would have lived a very tough existence.
As part of the archaeological study a series of test trenches were dug. The test trenches and the imaging unearthed a circular ceremonial type enclosure on the upper field and some fire pit remains. On the lower field there are remains of a large rectangular Fulacht Fiadh – a large pit that was lined with stones, filled with water and heated by hot stones. I’m not a historian so I’m open to correction, but it was explained to us that this would have been used for dying skins and cooking food. The archaeologist explained that, just as you wouldn’t want to live in an industrial site today, the Iron Age people’s homes were probably located on the flatter ground where I grew up and where the Holmpatrick Estate is today. (better not mention the National Planning Framework’s plans for Industrial Estates so!). He gave me a lovely flint scraper (the archaeologist). I love flint. Michael got our friend Ed Cook to make it into a necklace for my birthday. I love the necklace. It’s my lucky flint!!
I once thought I might study archaeology just as my uncle and grand uncle had done before. During the heatwave in 2018 there were great archaeological discoveries made thanks to the dryness of the earth. I thought I would have a go at it myself. I discovered a circular shape just beside our field in the Nun’s Field and I was very excited by it. I showed the Google Earth Image to my father and he said two words; Fosset’s Circus! We got a good laugh out of that. Of course, that was where the circus tent goes every year. I think I should leave the archaeology to the experts.
So back to sitting on the deck in the dark. It got me thinking about how insignificant everything we were going through is in the greater scheme of things. That we are only really borrowing the land. (Mind you at that time I thought it would be for a bit longer!) But I felt close to those souls that came before us. It was very peaceful and I slept well afterwards.
Once I went up to the field. It was sometime in 2010, before our court case. (I will go into the court case another time if only for its comedic value). I went up to check the entrance because strange things were going on up there. A new fence arrived in the middle of our entrance courtesy of six of the neighbours that lived the far side of the hedge. (After two decades living there, they had suddenly decided that they owned half of our entrance). Very strange, especially as we had all bought our land from the same lady: the lady of the poker game. Also, furious planting of giant laurel hedging was going on at their entrance and magically a giant hole appeared further down the hedge (another story too).
So, when I arrived up I saw a plastic bag placed hanging on the hedge inside the newly erected fence. I had to climb over the new fence to retrieve it. It was a bag full of dead fish. Now, if I lived in Chicago in the 1930s I would have been very worried. Something along the lines of …if you don’t stop what you’re doing, death was at your door……you will sleep with the fishes…..you’ll be swimming with the fishes. Lovely. But this was 21st Century Skerries.
I binned it of course. I don’t like litter.
It’s not the only time something sinister happened. A councillor told us that he was approached by a little fish in the council headquarters. This little fish is someone who tells everyone he has an awful lot of money in the bank (last I heard there was 2m ). What was said to the councillor and referring to my husband Michael, “one of these days someone is going to take that fella out”. Lovely.
So back to fish. We know there are very big fish who have influenced our planning. We are only small fish and as a local councillor told us (after our planning was refused by the big fish in An Bord Pleanála), that the council had “bigger fish to fry” and therefore couldn’t intervene with regards our situation. Something to do with a new National Planning Framework and the M50 restriction that was causing the council a bit of bother……
Enough about all of that and speaking of fish I think I will go for a swim to the Springboards later, it’s not a bad day in Skerries and from where I’m sitting (for the moment) the sea looks nice. It’s good to be alive.
It all started way back with a game of poker. John’s Mum played poker every week with a group of friends and heard that one of her friends was selling her field. John had an idea to buy it. He and his young family lived in America and he wanted to come home to Skerries to build a home. His family had lived in Skerries for generations. He brought Michael up to the field and they both saw the vision. Michael’s family also were centuries in Skerries and he never knew this view of Skerries existed (apart from a glimpse from the top of the 33 bus). The view was closed off to the town. So, the plan at that time was to buy the field and see if they could build two homes and make the rest a public picnic park with a spectacular view.
John went to the auction but the field was sold to someone else. That sale ultimately fell through and all of a sudden John and Michael owned a lovely field with a view. Ciara and I joined the boys at the field to celebrate, along with two friends, also home from America.
We were being watched from behind the hedge. Little did we know that a devious and shady force was about to be unleashed into all our lives that would change all of our paths.
John and Ciara went back to America after a couple of years. They saw enough of the the begrudgery and its malignant influence on planning decisions. They didn’t know at the time but they must have foreseen,( just as in the game of poker), that the cards were marked by the dealer from the very beginning. Wikipedia tells us that cheating in poker can be done in many ways, “including collusion, sleight-of hand (such as bottom dealing or stacking the deck”). The same appears to apply to planning. John and Ciara thankfully have made a great life for their family back in America.
Michael and I stayed. The field was sold last week by a receiver.