Day Trips and Camper Vans

This weekend the camper vans arrived in Skerries. They were lined up all along the South Strand, on the sea-side of the road. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many camper vans in one place. It’s a sure sign of these times, with hotels and guesthouses out of action. And without querying the distances travelled, it is very Covid friendly.

Skerries was full of visitors. The whole of Red Island became a car-park for the two days. There was little grass left free of cars. People were having picnics on the grass tucked in behind their cars, enjoying the sunshine and sheltering from a biting wind. Even on the hottest, calmest days there is always a breeze at Red Island.  

We call it Red Island but it’s not an island really, it used to be way back before the sands silted up over time to connect it to the mainland. Now it is linked to the town by the harbour road with its bars, restaurants and coffee shops. It is the little peninsula that separates the beaches. The sandy south strand with the off-shore islands and our north strand with the deeper water and views along the coastline as far as the Mourne Mountains to the North. If you look at an aerial view of Red Island and the harbour, you will see the outline of St Patrick’s goat; the goat that the Skerries people stole from him many centuries ago. So that’s where it went. It was under his nose all along!

Our youngest, Mike, wanted to get out of Skerries. He has barely set foot outside the town in the last year,  so myself and Michael were happy to indulge him. The sun was shining and we took the top down on the car and headed off, as we say in Skerries, “under the bridge”.  We decided to avoid the coast and make our way into Dublin, using a sort of reverse psychology. If the city was coming to us, we would go to the city.

Dublin’s Docklands with the Pigeon House chimneys in the background

When we came to the end of the motorway, we took the tunnel to the docklands and crossed over the river Liffey. To the left we could see large ferries moored up along the docks and of course the red and white Pigeon House chimneys in the distance marking the mouth of Liffey and Dublin Bay.  Looking right towards town, the bridge designed by Calatrava stands out proud amongst the modern buildings in the Financial Centre. But my son of course was focusing on the Aviva Stadium straight ahead. His favourite view, he proclaimed. It is a striking building on the horizon.  It rises up above the old houses in all its glassy glory.  But it’s the great memories of all those rugby matches that were coming back to him and his father as well as the dream of playing one day in that stadium in a green (or Leinster blue) jersey. We took the old route and drove past the Aviva, for old times sake. Sadly, it is silent for the moment but hopefully it won’t be too long before the roar of the crowd returns to Lansdowne Road.

There was an eerie quiet about the place. Not a good quiet because you can’t help but think about all of the businesses that have their doors closed and the human stories behind this. Our mission was simple really. It was to seek out human life and maybe find somewhere to have lunch. We were half tricking ourselves into thinking that it might be possible to sit down outside a restaurant. Soon. But not yet.

We finally found an open carpark at the Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre. It was only half full. I felt like an extra in a zombie apocalypse movie walking through the shopping centre in my mask with all the shutters down except for the odd coffee shop and Dunnes Stores supermarket. When we got outside to Stephen’s Green there were people about, wandering around in the sunshine in summer clothes despite the cool breeze funnelling up Grafton Street. There were no buskers dotted along Grafton Street closely guarding the prize busking spots. Sadly there was no music.

We decamped to the park in Stephen’s Green and sat on a bench eating our lunch and looking at the ducks on the pond and people going about their lives. In Stephen’s Green it’s clearly the pigeons that rule the roost. They have developed the art of swooping towards you in the hope that you get a fright and drop what you are eating. It obviously works sometimes because they were all at it. It was a pretty unnerving game of chicken but then again us seasiders are well used to the Seagulls and their antics, so we knew not to show weakness! You would have to admire the pigeons’ ingenuity in their attempts to outwit us. Despite the onslaught it was still good to have a change of scenery. It was nice to see people out in the sunshine. You could momentarily forget you were living through a pandemic.

We drove back to Skerries doing our usual spin around the harbour before heading home. The harbour wall was also busy with people sitting on it and leaning against it, soaking up the sun (and also soaking up plenty of alcohol too). The tide had gone out, so the SUP boarders and swimmers, that were there before we left, had moved on, but the beach was still busy. In fact it was so busy on the harbour that apparently the restaurants had run out of drink! We can’t blame the visitors for this because, of course, the locals were out in full force too.  Our eldest, Sally-Anne, was proud of the fact that at the end of a very busy shift on the harbour, she managed to enjoy the last pint squeezed out of the last keg of Guinness. Well deserved.

When we got back to the South Strand it was about four in the afternoon and the town was beginning to empty out. The camper vans had dwindled in number and we were able to reclaim a parking space outside the house. We had a lovely day, but I think I will wait until Dublin opens up again before I venture back.

Hopefully the fact that everyone was outside will mean that we will not end up paying a price for the taste of freedom we saw playing out this weekend (sad news coming out of India is a worry). But then again someone in this house got his vaccine today and my parents, who are fully vaccinated, got to hold their four and a half month old grandchild yesterday for the first time. (There’s another little grandchild in Australia we are all looking forward to meet soon). Also Mike headed off this evening to play his first nine holes of golf in almost a year. So, no matter what, it is different to this time last year. Things have moved on and there are many reasons to be hopeful.

Busy weekend on Skerries harbour Image- Eibhlín Kearns

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.

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.  

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.

Talk of Tribunals

Transparency is a fundamental principle in combating corruption which is a disease that flourishes in the shade”.

That was Justice Mahon in the Mahon Tribunal final report published in 2012.  The Tribunal into “Certain Planning Matters and Payments” as it was called, began in 1997.  The final report came out 15 years later. I followed the tribunal religiously from the days when Justice Flood was chairman, all the way through to its conclusion. I remember listening to the RTE Radio enactments at night cycling on an exercise bike in the sunroom of our home in the Skerries Rock estate. I had two young babies at the time. Michael had sold his internet company and we had just bought our land. We were hoping to build a home on the Rush Road, not far from where I grew up.

Home

The Tribunal was compulsive listening. On one occasion and when James Gogarty was giving evidence, we went into Dublin Castle to see the proceedings in action. Mr Gogarty was a brave man. When he died in 2005 Justice Flood attended his funeral which I thought said a lot. Tom Gilmartiin’s brave testimony to the Tribunal stands out. He told the truth. He passed away in 2013 quietly and with dignity. It was reported in the Irish Times that there were no Dail Tributes “just prayers, a poem and a song”. I hoped, as most did at the time, that despite the huge amount of public money spent on the tribunal, that Ireland would be the better for it and that the end result would result in a more transparent and equitable planning system.

Unfortunately, corruption is still thriving in the shadows. If there is another tribunal I am offering our story as proof that the planning system is as opaque as it ever was. When he wrote his recommendations, Justice Mahon knew well that it is not possible to completely eliminate corruption. He spoke of emerging gaps in transparency and the need for constant review. He stressed that the example should come from the top.

“the corrupt and the corruptible will inevitably gravitate to the weakest link in the chain of anti-corruption measures”….“corruption at the top tends to repeat itself throughout the whole governance system”.

I have seen it first-hand, how corruption coming from the top creates a tribe of ‘enablers’. Within that tribe, in my opinion, there are three main types of enablers: the Complicit, the Willfully Blind and the Indifferent. (I credit Margaret Heffernan in the Ivey Business Journal for the term ‘wilfully blind”).

The Complicit are actively involved in corruption but in a bubble, cut-off from reality and with little accountability – some of them are just following orders, some are happy with the rewards and some are afraid of retribution if they were to speak out. When there is a group of people who are aware of what is going on, leaks start to emerge. Comments make their way back to us. To quote a few; “it wasn’t me. I didn’t do it!”, “I’m not the one that was the bad bastard”, “they’ll never get planning because my ..…  is very high up in planning and knows their every move”, “it wasn’t as simple as that”,it was one of the ones that wasn’t going through”.

The Willfully Blind are aware but turning a blind eye in the belief that protecting the institution is more important than the truth. From experience the Willfully Blind tend to take one of two approaches in the hope that the issue gets buried: they either just ignore your correspondence completely or if presented with facts that cannot be refuted, they ignore them and proclaim that “the file is now closed”, “we have nothing further to add on the matter”.

The Indifferent are just that; indifferent. They just don’t want to know and would prefer to remain ignorant of the situation. Anything for an easy life.  Barack Obama said recently that the “biggest threat to democracy is indifference”.

This is what we have experienced in our dealings with the planning system, particularly since the latest refusal by An Bord Pleanala in 2017. There is a lot more that could be said about the system of course, but that’s for another time. I will say that the majority of people in the system are good people who carry out their duties in the public interest. It is unfortunate for us and for the town that personal interests came into play in our case.

Justice Mahon also spoke about conflicts of interest.  

“Conflicts of Interest are a root cause of corruption”.

 We can see clearly how a conflict has stopped our planning, not just for Holmpatrick Cove but since we bought the land 20 years ago. The land is and always was appropriate for development. The evidence-based studies confirm this as does the support from the community- all the sports clubs, the Skerries Community Association, the Chamber of Commerce, the Tidy Town’s Committee, were amongst many others who wrote in support of its development. There was a small handful of neighbouring objectors who provided the white noise required. Some of them close to the source of the conflict.  As I have said before, there are too many incidents, co-incidences and circumstantial connections pointing to one conclusion- that our planning was interfered with. We are far from alone in this assertion.

I wrote to Justice Mahon recently (a fan letter!) and he gave me some good advice. I am thinking about how best to use it. His and Justice Flood’s planning tribunal began the year my eldest daughter was born, in 1997. She’s 23 now. She has four younger siblings. We are living in her fourth home since then. When I was following the Tribunal hearings all those years ago never did I think that we would be impacted by planning corruption to the extent that we would lose our home and livelihood in the process. We will move on of course. On to our next home. If there is one thing our experience has taught us, it is resilience.

Last Christmas we showed a public representative our information. He is very sympathetic, and we believe will make a difference.  We showed him the timelines, the links between parties, the decisions taken. We told our story. We all joked about the fact that there was a tribunal in it. On seeing what we put in front of him his response was “if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, then it is a duck!”. Well, all I can say is – that duck is still quacking……!  

The Dog Fight

This Country Has Gone To The Dogs

There was a dog fight in the field some years ago. It was a turf war. Who was allowed to walk on the land?  Two big dogs told a little border collie that he didn’t have permission to walk on the land and he shouldn’t be there. But the little collie knew he was perfectly entitled to walk in the field as he had been given permission and sure wasn’t he looking forward to having a drink in the bar of the new hotel when it was built. 

Now the two big dogs had also been given permission to walk in the field. They had been doing this for a few years, sure didn’t they as good as own it. Don’t be ridiculous you stupid little dog. We know better than you. There will never be a hotel here. We have a very big dog relative in big dog high office who knows all about fields and is in charge of all of the fields and will never allow it. Where did I hear before about a dog being obeyed in office? Hmm, sounds familiar…..

One Autumn evening when there were haystacks in the field, I thought I would take the younger children up for a run around to wear them out.  They loved climbing up on top of the haystacks.  Now going up to the field was a rare thing for me to do because I didn’t like going up there. It gave me a sick feeling in my stomach.  But occasionally I would make a point of going up on principle. I parked my car at the entrance of the field and let the kids loose on the haystacks. They were happy out. 

I was buttonholed by a dog walker. I was told my car was in the way and that he was walking his two big dogs. I was taken aback. I thought to myself, but don’t I own the field? Wasn’t I entitled to park my car wherever I wanted?  I looked him in the eye and told him I was “walking my children”.  It took a good while for the penny to drop- he backed off “Oh, oh, yes, right” and he skulked away. Honestly, you’d swear some people think they own the place. 

The dogs in the street know what happened to Holmpatrick Cove in planning and development circles. It was a good development. Over the last three years we have met up with practically everyone in the industry in an effort to move forward.  The planning history is too much for them to stomach. Reactions to the refusal include (and I quote) “are you sure there wasn’t an ulterior motive,” “somebody has been shadowing your planning from the get-go,” “they were of a mind to refuse,” “someone’s fingerprints are all over this” etc. etc.

We have joined the dots, but that’s another blog. Back to the dog fight. It was an uneven match. Two big dogs against one little one. There was no let up or calling off of the dogs. The poor little collie lost an eye in the fight. He died not long afterwards. 

The dogs in the street know what happened. And so do the dogs in the field. 

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

Propaganda

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.

Skerries Harbour

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!


Credit: The Sound of Music- Von Trapp family flee to Switzerland

“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