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 trinkets.  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….


 

Saving the Community from Itself

Saved by the Board- View from the White Wall
Imagine a planning appeals board refusing a planning because of the noise from children playing. Honestly, it’s way up there with Monty Python’s Ministry for Silly Walks. The noise from children exercising on land (zoned for recreational uses) would be “injurious to the neighbouring amenity” which, by the way, is well over 100 meters away. God love those families living in the houses overlooking the rugby and Gaelic pitches in Skerries I say.

This was An Bord Pleanala. They had run out of noise you see. All the other noises had been taken by the noise studies.

The appeals board knows best. They’re the experts. They know all about this planning stuff. Didn’t they put one of their most experienced inspectors in charge??! Hmm…let’s see….No! All of the local clubs and societies supported Holmpatrick Cove. They said it was ideal. A great plan for Skerries. But what would they know? They only have to live with it. Phew. Close one!

This is the same appeals board that said that that Holmpatrick Cove wasn’t the right place for a hotel. No, it wouldn’t do to have a hotel on the coast overlooking the islands at the edge of town. I mean it’s not as if Skerries, that tourist town, needed one. There’s one in Balbriggan isn’t there? And Malahide and plenty around the airport. Oh yes and there was that letter from Failte Ireland saying it in fact was the right place for a hotel. But what would they know? They’re only the tourist board. Or maybe that letter got lost somewhere….there was a lot of trouble with the filing system over those seven months. Files were going missing.

Another big problem, that the planning appeals board sorted out, was that if the development was built, you just might be able to see it. That would not do at all. So, if you are standing at the outer point of Red Island and you look south you would see it in the distance below the other houses up on the Rush road. You think that’s bad. Wait till you get to the White Wall at the rugby club (bear with me it’s a bit of a walk along the South Strand path where you wouldn’t be able to see it). Or you can drive (although they don’t like cars) and pull in to look at the islands. Now listen carefully, this is important; when you get there do not look out to sea at the view. I repeat do not look at the view. Turn around and face south and look along the coast and you would, heaven forbid, see bits of Holmpatrick Cove sticking out. (If it was built that is).

We were spared that “visual intrusion” by our public body. It’s all highly sensitive you see, being on the sea side of the road. These views are protected. That’s why they have these rules; so you can see the view. Only problem is that there are houses in the way on the Rush road. Lots of them and a hill. Imagine if you could have driven in and had a coffee in the hotel and actually seen the view. But rules are rules. Public bodies like rules. When they suit that is.

They like Objectives and Guidelines too. Throw in a few objectives for good measure. Your average punter won’t look them up. Like the one about being “set below the ridgeline”. Did you not read the application? Or about keeping the hedges. I could go on….The Guidelines are great though. Now that’s serious stuff. Quite scary really. But hang on. Why put in Guidelines that don’t match what your saying?  Surely you mean the 2007 ones not the 2009 ones? The ones that are actually about “sequential zoning”. The ones for the councillors who vote on zoning. Which they did. Four times. Maybe it was a mistake? Honestly, you’d swear it was a democracy or something.

If you had an hour or so to spare and as an average punter (a reasonable man/woman) you could get a copy of the Development Plan and have a gander. It could be a bit confusing though to the ‘reasonable man’. There’s a Masterplan in it called the Holmpatrick Cove Masterplan. It’s on the map too. Hatched out in black and yellow. There was supposed to be a hotel and pool and houses and a park and a walkway and oh yes, don’t forget the “training spaces” for those noisy kids. But no! The planning appeals board knew better than those meddling councillors. They knew better than the planners that wrote their Development Plan. They knew better than the community. They found a loophole. A technicality…….Gotcha!

“Sounds Like a Lot of Crap to Me”

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.

Image: https://archiseek.com/2010/1802-the-four-courts-inns-quay-dublin/

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.

Holy Faith Convent Skerries – Hugh FitzGerald Ryan

The Human Cost

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”.

The House on the Hill

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………?