Wednesday 20 March 2019

Medieval sea port on the coast

Martello Tower in Skerries
Martello Tower in Skerries

Robert O'HARA Archer Heritage Planning

SKERRIES, a name which refers to the rocky islands off the coast, has been a seaport from at least the early medieval period (400-1169) though the antiquity of the location as a landing place certainly extends into the prehistoric period.

It owes much of its character to this coastal location, indeed in the 18th century Skerries was adjudged the premier fishing port in the country and in the early years of the 20th century it was a popular coastal resort.

Although the village developed around the industrial mills, which remain an important amenity, Skerries' history can be traced back much further. It gained renown as the landing site of St Patrick, who arrived with an entourage of clerics at Red, Colt, Shenick and Church Islands.

It appears that two Saint Patrick's were at work in Ireland in the fifth century AD. The ancient annals refer to the elder Patrick (d.457 AD), or Palladius, a Gaul and first bishop to Ireland, sent by Pope Celestine in 431AD. It was almost certainly Palladius who made landfall at Skerries 'at sun-rise with the blessing of God, with the true light of miraculous doctrine' with 'bishops and priests, deacons and exorcists'.

He preceded the 'real' St Patrick by about a generation, and both missions have become muddled and confused, often deliberately, as biographers of the later Patrick sought to emphasise the primacy of his mission. Church Island, or Inispatrick, is reputedly the place where the first native bishop, Benén was converted and schooled.

In the 9th century, further references to a church there relate that its abbots were closely related to the kingship of Brega (counties Meath, Louth and north county Dublin). One abbot, Mael Finnia mac Flannacain, had been king of the Ui Chonaing, who successfully defended his kingdom against Ulster rivals and in driving the Vikings from their Dublin base in 902 AD. Mael Finnia may have established the church on the island, and he abdicated his throne to start religious life there, dying shortly after in 903 AD. The island hosted a synod in 1148 where St Malachy and others discussed church reform. The monastery was moved from the island in the 13th century and a new foundation was established at Holmpatrick.

After the dissolution of the monasteries in the following century, the monastery and its lands fell into private ownership, eventually passing to the Hamiltons of Hacketstown, who financed the construction of many of the public buildings in the town.

• Robert O'Hara is an archaeologist and director of Archer Heritage Planning Ltd, Balbriggan. 01-8020403,