Even before they set foot in Skerries, visitors get an inkling as to why it has been declared overall winner of the Tidy Towns competition.
Arriving by road from Dublin, ducking under the low railway bridge, the visitor is presented with a view of a roundabout – but it is one with a story, one that shows evidence of taste, appreciation of design, attention to detail, and of a sense of place.
About six years ago, the roundabout, defined by rough-cut limestone kerbstones set into the road, was an unremarkable grassed-over space with some bedding plants in the centre.
Today, it is an eye-catching display of tall and low-growing grasses, green and blue and green and white variegated beach pebble divides between the plants and a few randomly placed small cairns.
It is elegant as well as being simple and sophisticated. It is the result of a partnership between Fingal County Council, Skerries Tidy Towns and Grasshopper, a landscaping, design and maintenance company in the IDA Port Tunnel business park.
"The council wanted to do something [with the roundabout] and so did we and they put us in touch with Grasshopper. They designed it and we maintain it," explained Maeve McGann, one of the triumvirate – along with Anne Doyle and Mary Conway – who drive Skerries' impressive tidy towns operation.
A core of about a dozen enthusiasts rope in up to 300 volunteers from among the town’s residents and business community. In close partnership with Fingal’s operations department, which includes the council’s parks and environment departments, they have been chipping away for years, improving the seaside town bit by bit, all of their efforts leading to Monday’s win.
Everywhere, the town’s built heritage shows evidence of their work and of community buy-in, which involves active partnerships with schools and organisations such as Foróige, fundraising for individual one-off projects and, more importantly perhaps, ongoing care by volunteers of stretches of road and beach with a strong emphasis on respecting the environment.
The centrepiece on Strand Street, the town’s main street, is “the monument”, a limestone obelisk erected after the death in 1863 of James Hans Hamilton, esq MP, “by the tenantry of his several estates” in appreciation of his being “a benevolent landlord”.
Today, Tidy Towns tend the small forest of red and white flowers that surround it and it is an integral part of the streetscape, rather than something in the way of traffic.
The staff at McMeel’s pharmacy literally hoover up litter from the wide pavement outside. Across the road, community garda Joe Kilcoyne’s pride – and the town’s joy – is the station garden and window boxes he maintains in his own time.
Patch of road
A few doors down is Olive’s cafe and deli. From behind the counter,
explains her own modest role. “I have a patch [of road] that I look after,” she said, “from Rush Road to the rugby club.”
“Looking after” means she polices the stretch, picking up litter and generally making sure it is neat and tidy. “It means if you are driving along and you see any rubbish, you pull over, stop, get out and pick it up.”
A little further along from Olive’s is Floraville, formerly a piece of derelict waste ground beside the Carnegie Library, now a modern seating and garden area that appeals to the elderly. It is a joint initiative between the council and the local chamber.
"You can't compliment the council enough," says chamber president Martin Scully who runs a hair salon on Strand Street and works closely with Tidy Towns. Monday's victory is the result of "perseverance and dedication", he says.
Ms McGann agrees: “We wouldn’t be able to do anything [without the council]. They own all the public spaces. We wouldn’t manage without them – the grass cutting, a big town park, the roads and footpaths, they do all that.”
Down by the harbour, the sea is like a millpond, the Mournes clear in the distance under a pale blue sky. About a dozen trawlers are tied up at the Victorian harbour pier, men working on rudder and engine repairs.
The chi-chi wine bars and bistros that overlook the sea appear prosperous. Storm in a Tea Cup is selling its own-brand ice cream to mothers pushing prams on a sunny day.
Grassy parkland all along the coast looks well tended and well cared for – and appreciated by the many strollers enjoying the balmy day. Skerries deserved the pleasure on its red-letter day.