Islands of Ireland: No satisfaction on St Patrick’s

Probably the most famous visitor ever to these shores landed on St Patrick’s Island, Co Dublin — St Patrick himself, writes Dan MacCarthy

There are many churches, streets and public institutions that bear his name. The eponymous island is in the north of the county, offshore from the charming fishing village of Skerries. This 50m x 200m island is one of a cluster of three along with Shenick and Colt.

A ruin on St Patrick’s Island, Co Dublin, which was believed to have piqued the interest of Mick Jagger, inset, though claims that he was interested in purchasing the island were disputed by the Rolling Stones front man. Picture: Dan MacCarthy

A fourth, Red Island, eventually became joined to the mainland. These islands are in relatively shallow water, and are within sight of the roseate tern stronghold of Rockabill which lies in much deeper water. 

St Patrick founded a church on the island and a monastery was later established there by St Mochonna. Legend relates how the saint left his footprint on the nearby Colt Island.

In common with other monastic sites around the country, the monastery fell was to become victim to Viking raids and it was duly sacked in 797. Several hundred years after this, the monastery was reconstructed and had such significance that the Archbishop of Armagh, Saint Malachy, convened a synod on the island in 1148 to discuss the place of Ireland within the church.

Fast forward 1,537 years and another famous visitor to these shores, Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger, was linked with the purchase of the island. The Beatles once claimed they were more popular than Jesus, but Jagger was probably not more popular than St Patrick. Jagger was one of several celebrities linked to the purchase of the island when it was put up for sale. The actress Diana Dors was also rumoured to have been interested. Jagger declared “I’m not in the island-buying business. What’s more I have never heard of Mr Sugrue,” — a reference to the London landlord Butty Sugrue who reportedly sold the island to Jagger for £30,000. Sugrue had intended to build a 60ft illuminated statue of St Patrick facing Britain — “a sort of Statue of Liberty”.

This was the height of flower power and hippy communes were being set up around the UK and Ireland. St Patrick’s Island somehow appealed, in spite of zero housing, zero facilities including pier, and zero protection from the elements.

However, the press was indignant. An article in the Connacht Tribune bearing the headline ‘ Purchase of Land by Foreigners - and Hippies’ railed against “the purchase of land by non-nationals”.

It said not only could they not raise the stg£20,000 but “a London hippy, who apparently doesn’t believe in work and therefore lives from day to day on the £1 or two he can pick up from friends or from begging, would require about £20 to physically transport himself from the British capital to the holy Irish island”.

Xenophobic hysteria more suitable to 2018 than 1969.

A more sedate article listed five trustees who would put up £20,000 to buy the island — Frank Harris, the hippies’ leader in England; Sid Rawle, son of an Exmoor farmer; American communist and author Harvey Matusow; Indian yoga guru Swami Vishnudevananda; and US poet Allen Ginsberg.

After the trustees signed papers they said they hoped 500 squatters would set up the initial community and that “they would build a society of love trust, and tolerance, not based on the values of how much money a man has made,” said Harris.

On a trip to the island the guru did a headstand on the boat to the delight of the press photographers. When they landed, the Irish Press reported all that was there was “flotsam and jetsam, crates, driftwood, thousands of nettles, dried up plants, and an old ruined church”.

And no water, as three wells had dried up.

By late 1969 the plans had fallen apart and the Irish Independent reported that the “Hippies Abandon Island Plan”, mainly due to the opposition of the Skerries’ locals. Harris though, was determined to find a place in Ireland because” it is such a beautiful country, quiet and peaceful”.

The hippies would find their home eventually when John Lennon offered them refuge in his Clew Bay island of Dorinish.

Now St Patrick’s Island is enveloped in weeds, fishing boats come and go and its famous visitors are long forgotten.

- How to get there: Just off Skerries, Co Dublin. Enquire locally for trips.

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