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Saturday 16 December 2017

Skerries Folk Get St Patrick's Goat

The much-travelled saint, the Norse and a tambour factory have all shaped Skerries, writes Frank Hopkins

Some of the earliest references to Skerries are from the early Christian period and during the 6th century a monastery was established on St Patrick's Island, one mile off the coast.

St Patrick's Island gets its name from the much-travelled saint who is said to have stayed on the island while saving the inhabitants of Skerries from the evils of paganism.

There is an old tale in Irish mythology concerning Patrick and the people of Skerries. Apparently, while the holy man was on the mainland struggling to save Skerries souls from the clutches of idol-worshippers, a number of them went to Patrick's Island where they slaughtered and ate his pet goat.

The saint allegedly went back to the mainland to remonstrate with the perpetrators. When they tried to deny their involvement in the act, they found that they could only bleat like goats. When they eventually confessed to the crime, the saint restored their voices.

The Annals of Ulster record the burning of the monastery on St Patrick's Island in 797 by the Norsemen. Norse involvement in the early history of Skerries is evident in the names Skerries, Holmpatrick and Lambay Island. The name Skerries is a derivation of 'Skeri', a Norse word for reef while 'Holm' is the Norse word for harbour.

The town of Skerries was once described as one of the chief havens of Ireland and it was known primarily for its harbour and fishing industry. It was the largest fishing port on the east coast of Ireland during the late 18th century.

The harbour was regarded as one of the best on that part of the coast and the cartographer Scale said of it in 1765: "Skerries harbour is chiefly frequented by fishing boats and small craft; sometimes the pacquets and other vessels put in there when unable to make the bay of Dublin."

The village itself was described by a 19th century visitor as a "pleasing object with a cleanly appearance" and it comprised at that time a church, chapel and schools, with a fleet of fishing smacks in the bay.

By that time Skerries had become a fashionable weekend resort. John Dalton said that Skerries was "enlivened by groups of rural beaus and belles of this little fair port, which couldn't but fail to gratify the visitor".

Apart from the fishing, the main trade in Skerries in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was the import of coal and the export of herrings, potatoes and limestone. The limestone trade seemed to cause more trouble than it was worth because boats arriving at Skerries to collect limestone dumped their ballast outside the harbour, severely damaging the anchorage.

There was also a tambour factory that employed more than 700 people in the 1830s. The employees, who were mainly women, were paid four shillings per week, while children were paid two shillings.

In a paper read to the Old Dublin Society in 1956, Mr R S Duff tells us that wrestling was a very popular sport in 19th century Skerries, "particularly around Milverton and Balcunnin; nearly every man around was a wrestler". There were wrestling bouts at the Black Hills for most of the season but for some reason the matches were transferred to the Green at Lusk for the duration of Lent.

Some of the most prominent wrestlers in the locality were, according to Mr Duff, Paddy Connor, Eddie Connor and George Hoy.

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