The Ghosts of Skerries Harbour
Sailors often imagine they can hear faint human voices emerging from the babbling sound of
small ripples breaking against the bow as they coast along in a light breeze. Some say they
are the ghosts of long dead mariners trying to tell their story. So listen very carefully as
you sail your boat out of Skerries Harbour.
You might, for example, hear the story of a long forgotten invasion by fierce tribesmen
from France, Wales and England which landed from their boats at Skerries in the Second
Century AD spoiling for a fight and angry at the high taxes they had to pay to Irish princes.
Or the old 14th century ship's captains bitter at suddenly having to pay harbour dues when
discharging or landing cargoes at Skerries. The first port officials were appointed as early
as 1315 and the money they collected was passed on to the monks in the Monastery of Holmpatrick,
who owned the harbour and many of the surrounding lands.
Fifty years later, in 1355, it was the turn of local fishermen to be annoyed when the
English king, Edward the Third, ordered that anybody guilty of the "fraudulent buying of
fish and the illegal exportation of cured fish" be thrown into the dungeons at Dublin Castle.
This, presumably, was to benefit the monks at Holmpatrick who controlled all the trade
through Skerries. But the first pier was not constructed until after 1496 when the king gave
the monks the medieval equivalent of planning permission. By 1540 they were earning £8 a year
from the harbour, a tidy sum in those days.
The new pier was the scene of utter devastation in 1534 when Henry VIII sent a man o' war
under Sir William Skeffington to help put down the Geraldine rebellion led by Silken Thomas.
Skeffington sent a raiding party ashore, burned four local boats after first stripping them
of their valuable rigging, and made off with several other small local boats. King Henry's
forces visited Skerries again twelve years later when a force of 3,000 sailed out of the
harbour en route to Carrickfergus although this time they caused no recorded havoc.
But there were fears in 1548 that the French might capture Skerries and use it to control
shipping between Scotland, then a French ally, and Brittany. At the time it was one of the
few harbours on the East Coast which could be safely entered at all stages of the tide and
had vital strategic importance. Over the year locals grew accustomed to seeing large sailing
ships, bound to or from Dublin, anchoring in the bay to find shelter from storms.
The Reformation sounded the death knell of the power of the monasteries in Ireland and
control of the harbour passed to a succession of local landowners, including Thomas
Fitzwilliam who, in 1565, was ordered to repair the pier and support a small garrison of six
English archers. The next leaseholder, the Earl of Thomond, was entitled to demand "from
every fisherman the best fish when they took fish".
In 1689, during the Williamite Wars, the arrival of one of William of Orange's warships,
the Deptford, struck fear into the townspeople. Captain Rook landed 200 men and "beat the
people who pretended to defend the town." He fled when an Irish force approached but not
before burning all the boats in the harbour.
Peace returned to Skerries after the Battle of the Boyne but battles of another kind then
commenced as a succession of local dignitaries attempted to force the Government of the day
to pay for the repair and extension of the pier, a long drawn out campaign of attrition which
finally bore fruit more than two centuries later when the Office of Public Work finally
extended Skerries Pier.
Over the intervening years there were many wrecks at Skerries, many for the want of a longer
pier which could shelter more vessels. In 1858 a local man complained, in a letter to the
House of Commons, that he had seen as many as 20 coasters anchored in Skerries Roads seeking
shelter from gales. There was no room for them in the already crowded harbour he added, and,
if the wind swings into the north or north-east, "there is great loss of life and property."
Fishermen too were clamouring for a bigger harbour. In 1784 Skerries landed more fish than
any other port in Ireland and by 1836 a total of 570 men and 92 boats were fishing out of
Skerries and the nearby small harbour of Loughshinny. Epic voyages were made by boats from
Skerries. In 1853 four local skippers sailed to the cod rich waters off Iceland. Three boats
made the journey two years later, leaving in April, taking 21 days to get there but just nine
coming home, in August. One of them had 21,000 salted cod in her hold.
Skerries also relied on the sea as a means of everyday transport and ships brought in coal
right up to 1961 when the last three shiploads were landed.
War once again washed the shores of Skerries. The Irish Volunteers examined the possibility
of using Skerries to land guns before deciding on Howth as a destination for Asgard and
Erskine Childer's cargo of German Mausers in 1914. English soldiers landed at the harbour
to defend a local naval radio installation and there were anxious reports of marauding German
submarines, one of which used its deck gun to sink several Howth trawlers in the sea near
Skerries in 1916.
The last Skerries Measles sail up the Liffey to celebrate Dublin's Millennium
Skerries harbour produced several unique
boats. The Skerries Hooker was a two masted sailing
boat between 20 and 50 tons common in the middle of the last century: a more recent creation
was much smaller. This was the Measle, a small single masted children's sailing boat designed
by a Skerries man, the late Brian Malone. It had a triangular Bermudan sail but in many
respects resembled a slightly larger version of the Optimist. It was popular throughout
the North County and took hundreds of local Fingal sailors on their first sail. The Measle
was eclipsed by the runaway success of the Optimist but several still raced in club races in
Skerries until a few years ago. A fire in the Junior Shed in 1995 destroyed many Measle
rigs and foils and dealt the class a blow from which it never recovered. Now only a handful
survive and soon they will join the ghosts of ships and men which tell the mournful nautical
sagas you might hear if you let your imagination translate the chuckling, muttering sound of
the Skerries' waves.
Gerry Byrne 1997
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