Growing Up In Skryne

A journey through the nineteen-fifties

By Eoin Hickey

Navan and District Historical Society have copied this item from:

http://deargrandchildren.org/family/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Growing-Up-In-Skryne-1.pdf

The pictures have been titled here and can be found by accessing the above.

The Steeple at Skryne – a painting by Rachel O’Connell c.1996.

 

Skryne and the early Hickeys

I’ve taken the title to this chapter from my mother, Elizabeth Hickey’s, book Skryne and the Early Normans published in 1994 which gives a detailed account of the arrival in Skryne of the Norman knight, Adam de Fepoe and his followers in 1172.

I will try to give the reader a brief account of our family’s arrival in Skryne and what it was like to grow up here in the 1950s.

In the spring of 1948 my parents, who were both working, lived in a top floor flat in St Stephen’s Green, a few doors along from the Shelburne Hotel. They had three children and one on the way, so needed more space.

My brothers, the twins, Robin and Peter were born in 1944 and I arrived two years later. My father owned a motor car which he could park outside the front door on The Green, they used the Shelburne switchboard to make and receive phone calls and on sunny mornings the pram was parked, un-attended, inside The Green and carefully watched from the top floor window across the road.

So it was that, in the spring of 1948, they were on the lookout for a place in the country which my mother, part Irish but mostly English, would have described at that time as The Home Counties.

Having driven for a few weekends around Wicklow, Kildare and Meath they found nothing suitable. One morning a work colleague showed my mother a small newspaper advertisement “Castle for Rent in County Meath”. The adrenalin flowed – at least for my mother.

Shortly before she died in 1999, in her beloved Skryne Castle, aged 83, my mother agreed to make a tape recording with my daughter Christina and myself. The recording was made over several days, lasts for about two hours and covers most of her long and varied life including the family’s arrival in Skryne.

They came to view the castle one Saturday afternoon with Mr Counihan, the auctioneer for the owners. Mr Counihan didn’t have a key, no wonder, the front door lock was massive and the key weighed about two pounds, so they climbed in through the coal house, into the courtyard, through the greenhouse and were in. My mother gave us a wonderful description of the house, justifying it all the way. I gather my father wasn’t quite so enthusiastic!

The castle was completely bare of furniture. She explained that the kitchen and bathroom had tiled floors so wouldn’t need Lino. Most of the other floors were wooden so could be stained, there was a built in corner cupboard in the kitchen and two of the bedrooms had walk in wardrobes! There were fireplaces in every room and lots of trees for firewood, ample space to grow vegetables and plenty of bedrooms to accommodate my father’s mother and other family members! Betraying a lack of enthusiasm on her husband’s behalf she kept on saying “……and your father was very good”. They were divorced little more than a decade later!

His widowed mother did come to live with them and brought her furniture with her which was very helpful. It wasn’t to be though, and she left, but did leave her furniture behind her. The rent for the castle, which included some five acres of what were described as mature grounds, a garage and some sheds, was £4 per week. They both stayed working and commuting to Dublin with Granny and helpers minding the children, but the rent and the travelling proved too much. My mother appealed to the landlord and had the rent reduced to £1 per week and had permission to keep PGs (paying guests) written into the lease – this was to prove very useful later. The rent remained at £1 per week up to her death in 1999, despite many struggles between herself and the landlord.

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Skryne and the Castle

Skryne is a well-known landmark. The hill with its tall steeple can be seen from all over County Meath. When Saint Patrick travelled from Slane to Tara he must have come by Skryne, he certainly did later on – sure, according to legend, didn’t they steal his shoes at Garlow Cross! Saint Columcilles’ Shrine rested on The Hill and gave us our name and he is still much honoured in the parish today. Adam de Feypo and his Norman knights came in 1172 and built their castle – to quote from my mother’s book Skryne and the Early Normans:

Let us take ourselves back to the year 1172 or so and imagine ourselves approaching Skryne for the first time with Adam de Feypo and his soldiers…… they might have halted again at the small monastic settlement of Trevet where…… he might have been told the story of King Art and shown his burial mound. Leaving Trevet they would have climbed to a boggy plateau drained by a shallow lake, and reached the community centre there – a ring fort situated north of the lake…. He would have seen ahead of him the two hills of Tara and Skryne;….. Skryne distinguished by its small Church and scattered buildings of the precinct. Adam would have been interested in this landscape. Here he intended to establish the house of Feypo and from this land would come its wealth and power.

By the 16th century the Augustinian Friars had established their monastery on the slope of the Hill below the church. Perhaps it was because of its ancient history that in 1948 my parents were attracted to Skryne. It was in this year that Skryne won the Senior County Football Championship - and Kilmessan won the hurling! Sean T O’Kelly was President of Ireland; some rationing was still in place after the war and Eamon de Valera handed over as Taoiseach to John A. Costello who went on later that year to declare an Irish Republic. My story, however, is local; built around Skryne Castle and my mother, who had quite an influence on us her children and on others, during her half century at Skryne Castle.

Skryne Castle, by any standard, was and is a substantial residence; there are three floors and no basement. By far the most interesting feature of the house was its fireplaces, or rather chimney pieces. There were three important ones; in the hall and in the two front reception rooms, reputed to be by the renown eighteenth century artists; two by Adams and one by Bossi. Whether they were original or not we never really knew but they were masterpieces of art and quite something to grow up with and to take for granted. Judging by the number of dealers who came to buy them over the years there must have been something to them. Sadly, after our time, when the castle was being renovated they were stolen along with the pair of heavy gilt mirrors in the drawing room.

The upstairs drawing room is the place most associated with The Ghost of Skryne Castle, written so much about by ghost writers. On winter nights when we sat downstairs in the kitchen we regularly heard footsteps crossing the drawing room floor above, to and from the tower, knowing there was no one up there. As we became a little older - and braver we did investigate and so too did the ghost story writers who came from Ireland and abroad. Terrible Tales From Ireland by Sara Gilbert is one, True Encounters With the World Beyond by Hans Holzer is another and most distinguished is; Living With Ghosts, The Ghost of Skryne Castle by Michael of Greece. Michael of Greece came to the castle several times while researching his book and became good friends with my mother. He is, no less than, a cousin of Prince Philip and grandson of King George I of Greece. He wrote us a very kind letter when our mother died. We’ll come back to the ghost later on.

Three photographs.

Interiors of Skryne Castle: the drawing room and the main staircase.

Mr and Mrs Hickey

Before moving on to Skryne I would like to give a short description of my parents, the couple who made this great, brave move to the country in 1948. My father, Noel Sydney, was born in 1916 and brought up in Westmeath. He went as a border to St Columba’s College in Dublin from where he went straight to work. My mother has been described as a high achiever. She managed somehow to go to Alexandra College in Dublin and from there to work her way through Trinity College, graduating in 1938.

The Parish of Skryne

The very large parish of Skryne and Rathfeigh stretches from the Navan Road (R147) to the Slane Road (N2) and in some cases beyond, catering, in the Fifties, for some two thousand souls in two chapels and two new national schools. We were a Protestant family, by then of five children, the two girls Netta and Caroline having been born in Skryne Castle. There was then a Protestant church at Lismullen and often Sir Robert Dillon of Lismullen and our family were the only attendees on Sundays – more about Sir Robert and the church later. My twin brothers, Robin and Peter came of school going age in 1949 and decisions had to be made. My mother did do some home education however the C of I authorities in Navan thought that we should go to their national school at Flower Hill – they offered to send a hackney car (a country style taxi service) each day, seven miles in and out, but my mother wasn’t too keen on the idea. A visit to the Parish Priest, Fr. Gerald Cooney followed. They were to become lifelong friends, the good priest and herself having a mutual interest in history and in particular Meath antiquity. He welcomed us into the school and assured that there would be no discrimination - and there wasn’t! It was my mother’s wish that we should grow up in the community and “busing” to Navan wasn’t really a runner.

A Virtual Tour by Pony and Trap

Photograph

Skryne Castle view from Mrs. Reilly’s Cottage, Hill of Skryne.

 

The Five Main Roads from Skryne

The five main roads from the Hill of Tara leading in directions across the country are well documented. Skryne also has its own five roads leading from the Hill also in all directions: Lismullen and on to Navan; by the Five Cross Roads, through Kentstown and on to Slane; by The Castle, to George’s Cross, Rathfeigh and Drogheda. To Oberstown, through Corbalton, Trevet and Ratoath; and finally; past Baronstown, Maher’s Cross and up to Tara. We don’t have a time machine to bring us back to travel these roads in the Fifties but I am pleased to be able take you on a virtual tour by pony and trap. So sit back and relax, imagine it’s a sunny summer’s day in the 1950’s and we’ve kindly been given a pony and trap by an old Skryne resident, Mr Leo Charles from Oberstown, to bring us on our way.

The Road to Lismullen and on to Navan

We start off from the top of the hill where we mount the trap at what used to be The Fair Green, a grassy space in front of the Steeple where, regularly, travelling fun fairs come and set up with chair-o-planes and swinging boats. We gee-up the pony and head off downhill towards Lismullen and Navan. First, on the left, we come to a roadside cottage where the Gerrard-Morgan family live.

There were four or five older Gerrard boys, all into sport. Tommy Gerard I particularly remember, he worked with the butcher and was extremely popular. He rode a most impressive racing bike and later cycled competivley for Ireland. We were all very sad when we heard he was emigrating to Australia.

In the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, where Ronnie Delaney won the gold medal for Ireland, Tommy was one of the Irish cycling team, controversially excluded from participating under the banner of the NCA, a 32 county organization not recognized by the Union Cyclist International. The Skryne man, with the unofficial team, did reach the starting line where they were spotted and excluded.

Next on the left downhill is a modern two storey farmhouse. Pat Cusack lived here with his elderly father and later with his wife Agnes. The Cusack family had transferred from near Drumcondra in north Meath to the richer pastures of Skryne with the Land Commission. There was a Republican streak in both father and son. In the mid-fifties Pat went missing quite often and was reputed to have been involved in the 1950s IRA Northern Campaign, blowing up bridges, with Sean South of Garryowen. All I can say is that I do remember, one winter’s evening, a strong smell coming from Pat’s van which he said was from a residue of gelignite which had sweated a little!

If we look to the left here we have splendid views of the Hill of Tara and everything in between. To the right we can clearly see the Mountains of Mourne, some sixty miles away.

Further downhill we come to Farnan’s house on the left, where twins Sheila and Geraldine, my age, join us on the walk to school each day. At the bend, behind a heavy growth of tall trees, is the former Protestant Rectory, home to the Talbot family [and later to the Willis family]

When the Talbots lived here we, as children, were regular visitors and I well remember having nettle soup as a treat. Sisters Beryl and Cyril lived here at the time with their elderly mother. Beryl later married Stuart Murless, horse trainer and brother of Noel Murless, trainer to the Queen; they went to live at the Curragh Stud.

The Talbots sold up in the Fifties and went to live in Sandymount. Many years later Beryl and Cyril came to visit my mother at Skryne Castle, they stayed for tea and when leaving my mother hesitated to ask “How is mother”? “Oh mother is fine” came the reply. “She’s out in the car, come and say hello”. Mother was then aged one hundred and wrapped up comfortably in the back seat of a Volkswagen Beetle.

When Waring Willis and his family bought The Rectory they substantially renovated the house and created a modern horse yard. Mr Willis had been a leading amateur jockey and as an owner, in 1969, won The Queen Mother Champion Chase in Cheltenham with Muir, ridden by Ben Hannon and trained by Tom Dreaper. This set the hill alight at the time with all the locals having had a bet on Muir.

Resuming our journey downhill, not now as steep, the pony breaks into a trot for a mile or so until we arrive at Lismullen Church.

Today only the bell tower remains but in the Fifties it was in good condition, in use, and had a beautiful feature which very few people knew about: A Harry Clarke stained glass window.

In the 1920s the rector, of what was known as the New Church, was Rev L. A. Handy. Lady Dillon of Longate Hall, Hereford, in 1929 commissioned a stain glass window as a memorial to her husband; Sir John Fox Dillon Baronet [d.1925]. The window, The Ascension was one of the last windows to be completed and installed by the stain glass artist Harry Clarke before he died in 1931

I remember it well, as children we sat there on many Sundays, fascinated by the coloured lights pouring through. The window depicts The Crucifixon with Mary standing at the foot of the Cross, Jesus rising with Lazarus from the dead, surrounded by awestruck onlookers and a cripple man Jesus is about to heal. An image of a male figure wearing a blue cloak is a self portrait of Clarke.

When it was decided to demolish the church in 1964 the Ascension Window was transferred to the Church of Ireland in Trim from where it went, in 2006, to Sotheby’s of London for auction and was sold to a private collector.

Before we leave the church I must tell you of the Sunday school classes we children attend here on Saturdays!

The clergyman was Mr Benson who lived in the Rectory at Kentstown; he was very old and nearly blind. He wore two pairs of spectacles, and used a magnifying glass as well to read the Lessons. Giving us a drive from the church on Saturdays, part of the way home to the Five Roads, he would ask one of us to sit in the front seat to keep an eye out – often asking: “Is that a cow or a man on the side of the road?”

Along the road shortly after the church, on the left, is the back gate to Lismullen, then the home of Sir Robert Dillon and his wife Synolda, now an Opus Dei centre. Sir Robert, Bobby to his many friends, was Godfather to my sister Caroline, born in 1953, and a good Godfather he was too! Each year, (and still) on the last Sunday in June an open air service was held at St. Patrick’s Church on Tara and in those days, afterwards, everyone was invited down to Lismullen for afternoon tea on the lawn. The weather always seemed to be fine, the Saint George’s Brass Band arrived by bus and set up outside with their huge instruments to the delight of all. Sir Robert and his knighted ancestors are laid to rest in a vault in front of the Steeple on the Hill of Skryne.

I cycled this road every day on my way to secondary school in Navan leaving the bike at Garlow Cross, then Mrs Robinson’s shop, and taking the bus to rest of the way. The school was Preston School, at The Square, now long gone. There were twenty six pupils, thirteen boys, thirteen girls, thirteen borders and thirteen day-pupils! Preston later amalgamated with Wilson’s Hospital in Multifarnham, where my grandfather went in the 1860s.

We now turn the pony and head back uphill. At the fork we take the level road to The Five Roads. On our way we pass McCabe’s and Keelan’s houses.

Ned Keelan drove a big, high delivery van for Halligan’s shop, he was a kindly man and always very good to all of us kids hanging around the hill. On my way to secondary school, if I was up early, I could meet Ned’s daughter Joan (now Joan Gallagher) with her sister and others, cycling flat-out, on their way to the convent school in Navan.

 

From Skryne down by the Five Cross Roads

To the left at the Five Roads one road goes to Kentstown and Slane but we take a right turn and start climbing, Tobin’s is on our right and Callaghan’s on the left and luckily the gate is open and I can see that there is someone at home so we’ll stop for a chat.

There were three old Callaghan bachelor brothers living here, Bundy, The Groom and Stephen. As far back as 1910 Bundy had played football for Skryne. They knew, and were well known to, everyone, having worked for years on the roads for the council with their own horse and cart, repairing potholes.

My mother recorded them, they talked about how their father remembered the famine and how when they were young they had no use for money – they grew their own food and swapped and bartered for most of their other needs. They spoke of how they remembered the horse and sheep fairs at Skryne and how, in the nineteenth century, army officers from opposing armies in Europe came to Skryne to buy their horses.

We continue on up to the cross roads near the top of the hill, on the corner is Halligan’s bar, shop and hardware and, opposite, to our right, is Swan’s two story house, a fine example of a traditional County Meath farmer’s house and dairy yard.

My sister Netta tells a story of when she was very young at school how the teacher asked the children where they got their milk from. Some said cows, one said goats and she put up her hand and said “Miss, we get our milk from Swans”!

Before we ask the pony to climb the last few yards up to the top of the hill we go along the road, past Halligan’s, to next door, the small cottage type building which is the butcher shop. Tony Watters is the butcher here and he is waiting to transfer his business to a new, purpose built premises, complete with electric walk in fridge, at Oberstown.

Now we turn the pony and start to climb up the final few paces to the top of the hill.

O’Connell’s Pub

We’re back again on top of the hill, it’s time to give the pony a rest and to take a break ourselves, so it’s a good opportunity to pay a visit to O’Connell’s pub. We lift the latch and enter into the grocery shop, the small bar with open fire is to the left and on our right is the ring room. The game of rings, always popular in Skryne, it’s played like darts but using rings instead. Jimmy O’Connell and his wife, Mary – Mrs O’Connell to us, live here with their two children, Marguerite and Thomas who also join on the morning walk to Skryne School. Before settling down let us first take a stroll down the yard.

Below the back door is the oil store, from here they sold, in two gallon cans, petrol for motorcars and paraffin oil for lamps, cookers and heaters. Opposite was the bottlings store and garage – Jimmy always kept a good car as he ran a hackney service. Further down the yard is the gent’s outdoor toilet, always well-kept with tar and whitewash. Next was the pigsty where they reared three or four pigs and fed them with the porter slops from the bar – the happiest pigs in the parish! Behind all this was another magnificent garden, a well stocked half acre or so incorporating a small lawn near the house with a rope swing hanging from a tall tree. Jimmy was known as The Yankee, a name given because he was born in America and came home to Skryne with his parents as a child. Jimmy was said to be as old as the century, and was well known to have played a part in the War of Independence. He died in the early Eighties. As a child I have good memories of helping Jimmy in the bottling store. At that time there was no draught Guinness in Skryne, only small bottles of stout – both Single X and Double X. Double X was similar to the stout we have today and Single X, which had a green label, was much weaker and of course – much cheaper. In the bottling store Jimmy soaked the empty bottles in a large open tank then washed them one by one with a wire bottle brush before placing them upside down on a spiked stand to drain. The bottles were then filled directly from a wooden barrel with a brass tap while having a white enamel basin on the floor to catch the spillage.

Mrs O’Connell, always very good to us as children and adults, lived on and ran the pub well into her Nineties, at all times having a warm welcome for all comers, and there were a wide variety: The hunt met on the hill; racing people used the pub as a meeting place; one could meet, of an evening, the American Ambassador and his wife chatting with an Arab Princess or perhaps the local cattle drover, all came together in O’Connell’s and, indeed, still do. One of my most vivid memories is that of the bonfire lighted a top of the steeple when Meath won the all-Ireland football championship in 1954.

The Road by the Castle, to George’s Cross, Rathfeigh and Drogheda

Now that we’re refreshed and the pony is rearing to go we head off, slowly, because the hill down is very steep. This time we’re taking the road which goes by The Castle, on to George’s Cross and eventually to Rathfeigh and Drogheda. Our first diversion is to turn in through the castle gate and head up along the avenue.

The gate lodge wasn’t lived in in my time. On the left is a two-story house, home to the Oakes family. Mr K. C. Oakes, who came from Croboy, Johnstown, Navan, was the farm manager at Skryne Castle. His wife Finnola (Murray) was a member of an extended farming family from near Kilmessan. The five Oakes children were roughly our ages so we all grew up together. Two of the their uncles; Kevin and Frank Murray from Sligo and Navan respectively had their own light aeroplanes and quite often flew over at weekends when we kids had great fun guessing – is that Uncle Frank or Uncle Kevin?

Mr Oakes made a tape recording with my mother in the mid-sixties telling tales of his growing up on a farm in County Meath at the turn of the century. He talked about going Christmas shopping with the family to Dublin on the train from Kilmessan and how, on the homecoming, being met at the station by the pony and trap and having to make their way back to Croboy in the black dark.

We crack the whip and take off down the avenue, lined with mature beech trees, where each spring, wave after wave of snowdrops and golden daffodils appear. As we drive, on the right, we can see a very fine example of a ha-ha which is a type of boundary fence used instead of a paling or hedge. A wide ditch is dug sloping on one side and faced with a wall on the house side, all underground so as not to interfere with views across the lawn fields. This ha-ha, which has a wooden fence added later on top, is [still] in excellent condition. We turn the slight bend and the castle comes into view.

As children we picked the snowdrops and daffodils by the thousands, tied them with raffia in bunches of ten with a few leaves, cut the bottoms evenly, placed them in boxes of five dozen and off they went to market in Dublin – that was our spring harvest!

The perfectly level tennis court springs out on the front lawns. As youngster if we wanted to play tennis – as we did very often, we had to cut the grass. In the early days this was undertaken with a push cylinder mower with one child on the handle and two pulling with ropes out front – no problem, we got through it quite quickly!

Photograph:

Elizabeth Hickey, Siobhan the British Saanan goat and Eoin Hickey at Skryne Castle c. 1959

Because we had so much grass my mother had the idea that we should keep a goat, so; she joined the British Goat Society (BGS), obtained all the information on different breeds of pedigree goat and eventually opted for a British Saanen, a pure white, hornless breed and great milkers. The kid goat duly arrived from England on the CIE lorry to Halligan’s shop caged in a wooden crate. The kid cost five pounds and the transport another fiver.

All went well and it came that the goat had to be serviced. The BGS listed Mrs Besson’s farm at Castleknock, now the Georgian Village, as having a British Saanen herd. Contact was made and off we went with the goat in the back of the car – a Fiat 500 beech-wagon estate, bought from Mr Madden’s garage in Dunshaughlin and previously owned by Lady Fingall. The smell of the billygoat was to be had in the car for weeks after. Mrs Besson kept the goats for milk to feed to her Jersey calves and the Jersey milk she sent to her husband’s two hotels, then the best hotels in Ireland; The Hotel Russell on St. Stephen’s Green and The Royal Hibernian Hotel on Dawson Street. My mother, never one to lose an opportunity, later organised with the Bessons to have my twin brothers, Robin and Peter, taken on as commis waiter and commis chef respectively. They got on well and within a year they both won a hotel competition, with a prize of a trip to Rome – where they even had an audience with the Pope!

Early in the Fifties my mother turned her hand to weddings at Skryne Castle. In those days wedding breakfasts were breakfasts. The marriage took place at 8.00 or 8.30 am with the guests arriving at the castle by 10.00 am. Breakfast consisted of a good fry with fresh eggs, homemade brown bread and marmalade finished off with hot tea and wedding cake – all done by noon. Then the music and dancing started, usually with a good accordion player accompanied by whiskey and bottles of stout, which the party brought in, as we had no drinks licence. The bouquet was thrown by three and everyone was gone home by four!

Photograph:

Netta Hickey, Bridie Farnan, Mrs. Fleming, Mrs. Reilly, Caroline Hickey and Mrs. Nixon – The wedding team c.1958

Weddings became popular; one of the earliest brides was Joan Devine (Joan Maguire) from the Hill of Tara. Joan and my mother were to become lifelong friends. She ran the souvenir shop on Tara and carried my mother’s guide book The Legend of Tara, a best seller but sadly now out of print. The weddings at the castle were very professionally run by a highly skilled team led by my mother. There were Mrs Kelly and Bridie Farnan from near George’s Cross, Mrs Fleming from Skryne, and Mrs Nixon from Clownstown. All had been trained in the big houses of the good old days and knew their stuff – they worked hard and had a lot of fun.

We children also took our turns on duty. Afternoon tea consisted of; cucumber, tomatoes and egg sandwiches, sponge cake, homemade biscuits and hot tea. We could do it with our eyes closed - all for three shillings (12 cent)! That’s what we served to the bus tours. In summertime, each weekday, CIE ran tours to Tara and on to Skryne Castle for tea. They would ring with the numbers as the bus left Dublin but couldn’t tell us when they were leaving Tara. As we all know, timing is everything, so, one of us boys was placed on lookout duty with binoculars, to watch out from the top bedroom window, across to Tara, where the parked bus could be seen. Bus ahoy! Was the call as the bus left, kettles on and short white coats donned as we all spun into action?

A tiny corner of the front hall acted as the shop where we sold postcards, The Legend of Tara, mineral drinks and very popular hand painted pottery with Russian and Celtic designs from the studio, at Collon, Co Louth, of The Count and Countess Tolstoy, descendants of the Russian writer. They later moved home and studio to Delgany. He was very Russian with a long grey beard and she wore long flowing dresses. I’m sorry not to have some of their pieces today.

As we turn the pony now in front of the castle I am reminded of the day our mother arrived home from an auction with an outside-car, or sidecar, without a horse! It was in superb condition, just like the jarvies use in Killarney, she couldn’t let it go for a tenner (£10)!

Photograph:

Dolly the cart horse with side car and children in front of Skryne Castle c. 1957

We had years of enjoyment with the sidecar. At weekends we could borrow Dolly the cart horse from the farm yard at the back and squeeze her in between the shafts. We met guests arriving off the bus at Maher’s Cross, went on trips to Tara or just drove around the Hill. Best of all, one year we entered into the St Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin. Mr. Craigie of Merville Dairies (later Premier) kindly lent us a horse and jarvey, complete with hard hat, and off we all went dressed in bainin pullovers with bainin caps with baubles - we even won a commendation for our effort!

On another day at another auction my mother bid another tenner and had a baby grand piano knocked down to her. This time it was the auction in Corbalton Hall. The piano was too big to go through the doors so we took it in through the window of the big room.

Dermot O’Brien, long before his Clubmen Band days played for wedding breakfasts at Skryne Castle. The big room was relatively small and the piano took up a whole corner so while Dermot played the accordion his drummer took the high spot – atop the baby grand piano.

This would have been around the same time as Dermot, then in his mid-twenties, was at the height of his career playing Gaelic football for his native County Louth including, in 1957, as centre forward, captaining the Louth team to All-Ireland victory.

We, and half the children of the parish, took lessons on the baby grand piano with Gypsy Murray. Mrs Murray came, with her husband, Fintan, from near Bective, in their twin windscreen Morris Minor car on Wednesday afternoons to give the lessons.

It was 1956 because I remember one afternoon Mrs Murray rushing in and saying to my father: “Oh Mr Hickey, I am very afraid, we are very near war!” This made a deep impression on me as a ten year old – the Suez crisis was then at its height.

Soon Mrs Murray graduated to adult dancing classes on Wednesday nights in the big room. The sessions were extremely popular, teenagers and twenty somethings - as many boys as girls, came from far and wide. This was just on the verge of the rock ‘n’ roll era and dancers still wanted to do the fox-trot and to be able to waltz. I remember in the Matt Talbot hall in Skryne Fr. Fox put up notices around the wall “Jitter Bugging and Jiving Strictly Forbidden”. As a child I didn’t know what this meant other than it had something to do with dancing.

Photograph:

Elizabeth Hickey with Cairn terrier pups and Delphiniums at Skryne Castle, 1994

We drive out the gate from Skryne Castle and head downhill. On the left we come to a fine two storey house next to the road, this is Smyth’s house. Mr. Brian Smyth was the Master of Skryne School, a short stocky man who always wore a good three piece suit with a watch and chain in his waist-coat pocket. Mr Smyth came to Skryne as a teacher from north Meath, near Nobber, he married Miss Malin also a teacher and a daughter of Mr and Mrs Malin, then The Master and a teacher at Skryne. Mrs Smyth’s sister Maeve or Mrs Seagrave, a gentle soul, married to Jack Seagrave of the Priest’s Cross, was also a teacher and taught us all in infant’s class. Sadly both Mrs Smyth and Mrs Seagrave died young. Margaret, Mr Smyth’s daughter, told me how her father bought the house when he first came to Skryne. It was a single story cottage in poor condition and he rebuilt it, much as is today, including the installation of a bathroom – unusual at the time. Margaret said that then there were only three bathrooms in Skryne; one in Corbalton Hall, one in Skryne Castle and now one in Smyth’s. On Saturday nights there was a queue up and after all the children were bathed the Parish Priest and the Curate would arrive, complete with towels and soap, for their baths

We move along now at leisurely pace looking out over the hedges and immediately on our right we come to the Skryne Lawn Tennis Club. A vibrant club with two grass courts and a small pavilion where on some summer Saturday nights, from our top floor bedroom window, we can hear the music from the tennis hops wafting across the field. [The tennis club is now, sadly, long gone.]

We keep going at a slow trot, Margaret (Smyth) and Jim Hayes’s newly built, two story house and well-kept gardens are on our left, we continue past the priest’s House, to the Priest’s Cross.

I meet footballing legend Liam Hayes, Margaret and Jim’s son, from time to time in Lucan where we both live now. We all watched with pride those great matches in the Eighties.

The Priests’ Cross is close to the football field which is next door to the home of the late Colum and Paddy Cromwell both fondly remembered for their contributions to Skryne and County football. I’m slow to comment on the game that means so much to the people of Skryne because the subject has been so well written about by Paddy and Colum and by Liam Hayes and David Carty in their various publications.

Going from Skryne, straight through the Priest’s Cross, first is a neat farm house across a stream close to the road. Here Mrs Fogarty, our local mid-wife, lives. She drives a car but more often does her house calls by bicycle. Mrs Fogarty delivered my two younger sisters Netta and Caroline into the world. Caroline was born on April 2nd. The day before, the cot was on the landing waiting for the new arrival and our mother was confined to bed when we three scheming boys came running in excitedly, shouting; the new baby has arrived, the new baby has arrived. Our mother knew otherwise; she wasn’t to be April fooled. In fact, when the new baby did arrive the next day, we learned where new babies really come from – Dr Murnane brought her in his black leather bag!

At the Rathfeigh Road, first on the left, is Kelly’s house. John Joe’s first wife had died and he lived here with his second family. Stephen, the youngest boy, lived in this house up until recently. Mrs Kelly (nee. Allen) of the wedding team at Skryne Castle, came from Castletown at the foot of the Hill of Tara, she had worked in Dowdstown House, now Dalgan Park, in the early part of the century, with the Taylor family who came to settle at Dowdstown after The Battle of the Boyne. Dowdstown was very much an Upstairs - Downstairs house and Mrs Kelly, as a very young girl, was very much Downstairs. She related all her experiences to my mother in a tape-recording made in the Sixties.

John Joe was gassed in the trenches during the First World War and suffered terribly from a bad chest. A cobbler by trade he repaired most of the shoes and boots in the parish, collecting and delivering many of them at O’Connell’s pub on a Sunday night. He had previously lived in an Old Soldier’s house (houses provided for veterans of the First World War) near Rathfeigh but managed to obtain a new house and some land when Corbalton lands were being divided. One of his ventures, in the Fifties, was to have a very long (it seemed so to me as a child) field ploughed, harrowed and put into trenches. He then let it out, drill by drill, for families to grown their own potatoes. My mother availed of this and I have, not so fond, memories of seeding, weeding and digging!

Stephen once told me how, as a youngster, he would bring the hen turkey in a box on the back of the bicycle, some ten miles, to Ashbourne to visit a pedigree turkey cock - at a cost of half a crown (10 cent). Only the best of produce in Skryne for Christmas!

When I went to work with McInerneys, then very big builders, in the early Sixties I met up with one of their head men – Jack Culliton who then would have worked on the then New Hogan Stand in Croke Park. Jack knew Skryne well for he was married to John Joe’s daughter from his first marriage.They would come on Sunday evenings to O’Connell’s pub to meet up with John Joe and throw rings – and perhaps to have their soles mended!

The road straight through at George’s Cross leads an area known as The Riggins. The valley at The Riggins is where we went tobogganing as children - when we had the snow. The valley is a continuation of the hill down and up at the Corbalton road. We had one proper toboggan and an assortment of wooden trays and sacks. A minor problem was the river at the bottom of the slope! So we always had to have two children on duty to catch and stop the speeding sledge. It wasn’t quite Switzerland but it did provide huge recreation for us and any visiting students we had staying at Skryne. The slopes were part of the lands of Belvin Hall, a fine gentleman’s residence and home to James Comyn, who kindly gave us permission to toboggan.while a member of a well-known County Clare legal family had been brought up in Dublin. His uncle Michael had endeavoured to defend Erskine Childers Senior prior to his execution. Once a junior journalist with The Irish Times James went on to do law and later became President of the Oxford Union. In 1978 he was made an English High Court Judge. Belvin Hall was burned by the IRA in1981 and immediately rebuilt. In 1991 James, by now Sir James, published his memoir In Summing It Up, memoirs of Irishman at Law in England. I last met James when my mother brought him and his wife Anne for lunch with my wife, Nora, and I to Finnstown House Hotel at Lucan which we then owned and ran. He died in Navan in 1997.

A short distance along this road by The Riggins would bring us to Cushinstown, one time home to a young Peter McDermott, the great Meath footballer, the man in the cap. Peter once recalled giving a young two year old, Cathal (Haughey), lifts on the handlebars of his bike. Peter went on to be a champion of Meath football in the Forties and Fifties and Cathal went on to be; one C. J. Haughey. Cathal, the story goes, rode his pony to school however Peter McDermott remembers Cathal as having a long way to go to school and taking a donkey which he left all day at the house next door to the school. One woman who would have known was the teacher – Mrs Annie Lynch (Wall) who lived with her husband Pat in the Toll House at Kilmoon. Pat and Annie are laid to rest on the slope at sunny side of the Steeple on Skryne.

From George’s Cross we drive the short distance, by Farrell’s, to Oberstown Cross Roads where on our left is Mr Leo Charles’s home also home to our pony - and he knows it! So we’ll leave him and the trap here for the night and walk across the road to Halligan’s other shop and bar and wait to be picked up.

The Road by Oberstown through Corbalton to Trevet and Ratoath

 

This morning we’ve gathered again at Halligan’s. As we wait for the pony to be tackled up it’s an opportunity for me to tell you a little about Mr Charles.

Mr Charles lived alone but had a housekeeper, Bridge Hynes, a lovely woman – I don’t know how she put up with him! I remember as a very small boy visiting with my mother and sitting in the very old kitchen in front of a wide, black range. He sent me across the road for a message; he gave me a ten shilling note, my eyes just reached above the counter as I asked for a Baby Powder. “A Baby Powder?” Mr Monaghan, the barman, said. “Who’s it for?” he asked. “For Mr Charles”, I replied – he handed me a small golden bottle, a Baby Power (Powers’ Whiskey).

In autumn, when perhaps fifty children were coming by Oberstown from school, they would stand outside Mr Charles’s gate, chanting: “A few apples please, Mr Charles!” Mr Charles had a good orchard to the side of the house. Eventually he would appear out onto the road, unshaven, with a collarless shirt outside his braced trousers, to address the children. “Who made the world?” he would shout. “God made the world, Mr Charles,” came the reply. “No! Who made the world?”. “God made the world, Mr Charles,” even louder. “No, who told you that?” “The teacher, Mr Charles.” “No, you tell the teacher that Mr Charles made the world.” “Yes, Mr Charles, a few apples please, Mr Charles.”

Next was the ritual of “show us your tae-pot”. “A few apples please Mr Charles.” “Show us your tae-pot.” Eventually some brave boy would step forward, lift the leg of his short pants, and show Mr Charles his tae-pot. That done, Mr Charles, whom I do believe was harmless, would invite three boys in to pick the apples, sometime later they would reappear with three buckets full, which he spilled out onto the road, to the delight of all the children.

Mr Charles knew his ponies; During the War he could go with a fast pony and trap from Oberstown to Dublin, via Ratoath and Cappagh in one hour. I think it takes the bus one hour today! Mr Monaghan, the barman in Halligans, was the bachelor brother of Eugene Monaghan, who farmed at Skryne, also coming with the Land Commission, originally from north Meath.

The weather is beautiful, no breeze and the sun is high in the sky. I’ve brought a pair of parasols which my Aunt Bryda recently brought from Japan. We leave Oberstown with both the pony and ourselves in high spirits, down to the bottom of the valley and a long pull up the other side. At the top of the hill on the right stands a two-storey brick house. This was home to the Malin family, Mr and Mrs Malin, the former teachers at Skryne School and their two daughters, also teachers, as we’ve mentioned earlier. Opposite is the farm gate to Corbalton Hall. Locals come here to buy vegetables from Mr Gormley, the head gardener. Next along the road are the main gates to Corbalton Hall, with white railings and a long avenue leading up to the house.

Corbalton Hall was built around 1800 by the architect Francis Johnston who also built the G.P.O. and Nelson’s Pillar. Corbalton, up to the Fifties, was home to the Corbally-Storton family and must have included some thousands of acres as after the Land Commission had divided a substantial part of the estate, there was still some five hundred acres remaining. Amby McInerney of the McInerney Building Firm bought the estate in the late Fifties. He felled and sold the timber from the woods which ran all along the main road, hacked up the roots and restored the land to agricultural use and then sold on to Carl Max von Schmieder and his wife Vicky, from Germany. The von Schmieders substantially remodelled and renovated The Hall. Today it belongs to businessman Pat McDonagh.

Recently, on a visit to King’s Hospital School in Palmerstown, it was interesting to see; Charles von Schmieder, Carl and Vicky’s son’s name on the honours board for Distinction in Economics 1991.

Both Amby McInerney and Carl Max Von Schmieder stayed at Skryne Castle while purchasing and becoming established at Corbalton. It was at that time that I, just turned sixteen, met up with Amby and managed to secure a position with the company at Shannon Airport, where they were then building the, two mile long, runway in preparation for the new Jumbo Jets. I stayed with the company for nearly ten years.

The next townland along the road towards Ratoath is Greenpark, home to the Mooney families. Tommy and Packy Mooney were doyens of Skryne football. As well as organising teams I remember seeing Mooney’s flat lorry heading off to away matches loaded with half the team and as many spectators on board. Irene Mooney, of the same class as me at school, led the girls in rounders while the boys played football. She married Eamon Giles and their son Trevor became one of the greats of Skryne and Meath football. Football is obviously in the genes because Trevor’s cousins are Mickey and Paraic Lyons of Summerhill also giants of Gaelic football. Both Mickey and Paraic worked with me, at the height of their football careers in 1986, when I was rushing to get Finnstown House Hotel ready to open and they were rushing to get off to Australia with the International Rules Team. Nora and I met Irene and Eamon recently, still fit, strutting along The Ringstrasse in Vienna.

My mother travelled this road every day to Dunshaughlin Community College where she taught in the Seventies and Eighties. One of her fellow teachers was Madeleine Stuart, who lived beside Greenpark at The Reask, with her writer husband Francis Stuart. They visited us and we visited them occasionally. Madeleine was Stuart’s second wife, his first being Iseult, daughter of Maud Gonne McBride. Stuart had a colourful and long life; he died in 2000 age 97. He had been involved in the Civil War on the Republican side and interned for a period. He spent the war years in Nazi Germany where he worked actively for The Third Reich. Returning to Ireland in 1945 he published over thirty novels and several plays. Madeleine died in 1986. An old friend of mine, Ray Jordan and his wife Celine, live at The Reask today.

Its evening and time to head back up to Skryne, The pony goes slowly and we find it difficult to keep him going past his own home but once through Oberstown he picks up speed again

The Road to Tara, by Baronstown and Maher’s Cross.

We set off now on the last of the five roads from Skryne. This one leads us to Baronstown, Maher’s Cross and on up to Tara.

We start downhill with O’Connell’s on our left and the graveyard to our right. Immediately below the graveyard are several ruins but two two-story houses are standing. These are home to the Alder and Donnelly families. Obviously this was a thriving ‘street’ at the time of the horse fairs in Skryne.

Next there’s high stone wall with a freshwater spring-well at the side of the road – always welcome by travelling animals. As we stop, to give the pony a drink, from our high seat in the trap we can see into Mrs Reilly’s cottage garden.

Mrs Reilly, a native of Skryne, was married to Jack Reilly from Prosperous. They kept, what to me as a child was, a magical garden, terraced because of the hill, facing south, and filled with scented flowers and lush vegetables. The Reillys had no children, Jack worked on the farm at Skryne Castle and Mrs Reilly occasionally helped my mother in the house. Before we had an electric pump, Jack came in in the evenings to pump up water by hand, turning a big iron wheel with a weight and handle until the tank on the roof overflowed. After Jack died, Mrs Reilly kept the garden as best she could and eventually retired to St Joseph’s home in Trim, formerly the County Home