Heading north from Connolly, the city slips behind by way of Amiens Street and North Strand. On childhood excursions this would be the route to Howth, holidaying in that exotic locale sometime in the early sixties. The line splits at Howth Junction, heading for Malahide via Portmarnock. The Dartline’s full extent runs from Greystones in the south to Malahide. Beyond that you’re on the intercity rail connecting Dublin to Belfast, a route that was initiated in 1845.
Stops in north County Dublin, or Fingal, are Lusk/Rush, Skerries and Balbriggan. I was familiar with this coastline up until my mid twenties, but other than a few DART trips to Howth and Malahide, and zipping through on a few excursions to Belfast, I haven’t given it much thought since. Recent outings in Drogheda and Swords have brought memories flooding back. Family picnics of old, by bus, train or Morris Minor, turned to teenage joyrides by whatever means possible. Bus train and whatever motorbike or banger we’d managed to hammer into a serviceable condition. Such bright ideas as we have in youth. Swimming with our clothes off. Swimming with our clothes on. There was, I suppose, an anonymity about the North County back then.
A little tweak of memory and these lines occur:
If you’re travelling in the North Country fair,
Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline,
Remember me to one who lives there,
She once was a true love of mine.
Bob Dylan wrote Girl From the North Country in 1963 after hearing Martin Carthy sing Scarborough Fair. I am travelling inside, back to my own North Country. I am scribbling my list of places to revisit when all the hard times are past. Here’s hoping. But, I can haunt Skerries as much as it can haunt me on this retro trip.
Skerries is every inch the old fishing village, it sits within a ragged coast of inlets and rocky islands. These islands gave the town its name which is of Viking origin. There’s Shenick Island with its Martello Tower, St Patrick’s, Colt, Red Island and another Martello, and most famously Rockabill, really two islands, the cow and the calf, with its lighthouse.
With a name like that, little wonder that Skerries has a musical twang for me. I might make up a past of ducktails and sideburns, hair-oil, drainpipes and blue suede shoes. There’s be mods and rockers in some terrible tableau along an endless boardwalk. And maybe it would all segue into Springsteen and some love wrought beat ballad with a backdrop of carnival lights reflecting in the chrome of a convertible. But, to be honest, I’m back in the seventies, and there wasn’t that much colour and light. But there was some.
Red Island Holidays Camp was as wild as it got. It was built in 1947 by Eamonn Quinn who later established the Superquinn chain. Quinn also built the Bray Head chair lift in 1950. Red Island mirrored Butlin’s at Mosney a few miles up the coast. The camp had two hundred and fifty bedrooms. Business faded in the late sixties and the holiday operation closed in the early seventies, though the ballroom continued as a venue into the eighties.
By the time we hit Red Island, its lustre was fading. There was a New Year’s gig we somehow got to with Horslips playing and Larry Gogan as MC. Larry Gogan had been the Pop DJ fixture for our lives since the Beatles first LP. His patter that night included the phrase: “Hey, it’s great to be young,” which I suppose is relative. I reckon Larry would have been pushing forty just then, and maybe didn’t quite have complete identity with the teens and twentysomething hippies and freaks reeling and rocking to Horslips. But the vibe was good. Gogan, in a later interview, mentioned the night which was broadcast live on Radio na Gaeltachta, but omitted Larry’s patter for being in a foreign tongue. Quel Dommage.
All the camp buildings were demolished in the 1980s, so only the Martello Tower remains in a parkland setting. Just a memory then. Another memory fades in: a carpark on a warm midsummers night. The Yacht Club was open for business but packed. However the music played full blast into the night to where the crowd had spilled outdoors. The song, Steely Dan, Haitian Divorce, soaked into the deep blue sky and over the sailboats bobbing in the harbour; as we danced till dawn in the seabreeze.
She takes the taxi to the good hotel,
Bon marche as far as she can tell
She drink the zombie from the cocoa shell
She feels alright, she get it on tonight,
Mister driver, take me where the music play.
Papa say: Oh -oh, no hesitation,
No tears and no hearts breaking no remorse.
Oh -oh, congratulations,
This is your Haitian Divorce.
The girl I danced with would be my wife. Still is. The number appeared on the Royal Scam, one of my favourites. Incidentally, Larry’s favourite album was the Dan’s Katy Lied.
There were times when groups of us took holiday cottages in Skerries. Friends of ours took one for the summer, commuting to Dublin for work on weekdays. Weekends were party time. A favourite haunt was Joe May’s pub. Upstairs, we could lounge in the great bay window looking out at the harbour. Going through these old seventies photographs I’m struck by how empty the place seemed. I remember the pubs being packed at night, but during the day, here as elsewhere, we might have had the world to ourselves.