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Plato, pilates and pubs: has an Irish town found the secret to the good life?

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Philosophers have long debated the concept of the good life and whether such an exalted state exists but the reality turns out to be not so elusive: you drive north from Dublin on the M1, turn right onto the R132, take another right at Blake’s Cross and keep going until you reach the sea. Then, if you have any sense, you stay put for ever because you are in Skerries.

This town of 11,000 people on Ireland’s east coast does not look remarkable. There is a high street, a harbour, a library, a community centre, a SuperValu supermarket, cafes, pubs, sports pitches. Residents walk their dogs, play bingo, sit on benches. Yet amid the ordinariness there is, apparently, an answer to a riddle pondered by Aristotle, Kant and Hegel: the good life? It’s right here. Or at least the good enough life.

That is the title of a new book by the English anthropologist Daniel Miller, who spent 16 months in Skerries studying daily life and came to a startling conclusion: “It is hard to find another currently existing society that is demonstrably better.”

Skerries seafront. The town is north of Dublin city. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/The Guardian

Miller set out to compare the writings of philosophers on virtue and happiness with ethnographic fieldwork and ended up stumbling into what he considers an exemplary community.

“I get to this place and everyone goes on and on about what an amazingly wonderful place it is,” said Miller. “You have to unpack that and see if this is a reasonable claim. I didn’t have a car and virtually never left. Over the 16 months I kind of got it: not only did they have this extraordinarily positive view of the town, they had created this community … and it gave back to them this sense of achievement and happiness and moral value.”

It was a fluke, said Miller, a professor at University College London who has done fieldwork in Asia, the Caribbean and Britain. “I lucked out because I really love the place, as you can tell. But I didn’t know that when I chose it.”

The book, which includes index entries on Plato, pilates and pubs, calls the town Cuan, a pseudonym in keeping with research rules on anonymity.

Map of Dublin showing the location of Skerries

Irish media needed to do little sleuthing to identify Skerries, though the Irish Times stopped short of fully outing it, saying only that it rhymed with “fairies”. Miller declined to confirm the location but was sanguine about the semi-outing. “In as much as this is a book of praise I don’t think they’ll be upset.”

There are caveats to Skerries’ anointment: Miller does not compare it to other towns in Ireland or elsewhere; his research skewed towards middle-class, older residents; interviewees cited binge-drinking, cocaine use, petty crime and other problems; others lamented the lack of a cinema, hotel or swimming pool.

The overall portrait is of a prosperous, forward-looking community humming with a love of sport – Gaelic football, hurling, rugby, cricket, bowling, sailing, karate, hockey, kitesurfing, sea swimming – plus arts, drama, bridge, bingo and environmental activism. According to Miller, it is a society freed by feminism and no longer beholden to theocracy.

A game under way at Skerries bowling club
A game under way at Skerries bowling club. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/The Guardian

He found residents asserted a “conspicuously civilised” status by contrasting themselves with Brexit and Donald Trump. Clothing is unpretentious and egalitarian. People join committees not for status but duty. “The main values in this town are not consumption – it’s the opposite. By far the most important value in terms of status is environmentalism.”

This may sound like a Guardian-esque nirvana, and there is a sense of Skerries being a place apart. It is 25 miles (40km) from central Dublin with roads that narrow after you pass under a railway bridge.

“People joke that if you leave the tunnel you get a nosebleed because the air is so rarified,” said David Diebold, who with his wife, Emily, edits the Skerries News magazine. “Some days it feels like The Truman Show with blue skies overhead while it’s raining in the rest of Dublin.”

David Diebold sitting at a table
David Diebold: Skerries is ‘the best place in the world to live’. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/The Guardian

Some in jest call Skerries a “dome”, a reference to the Stephen King novel about a town encased by a glass barrier. The local author Shane Hegarty wrote about monsters invading a town through gateways in his bestselling series Darkmouth.

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Skerries News, however, fills 28 glossy pages with upbeat stories. “Bad news doesn’t need help but good news needs a bit of a push,” said Diebold. A recent edition features the Skerries scientists behind Ireland’s first spacecraft, a memorial bench for a men’s shed founder and pictures of the northern lights taken from a nearby island.

Geraldine McQuillan sitting at an outdoor table
Geraldine McQuillan: ‘I’m one of those people that joins things.’ Photograph: Patrick Bolger/The Guardian

Miller has returned to London – his job and family are there – but is remembered fondly for joining multiple activities, including ukulele lessons.

“A very interesting and entertaining man and a great listener,” said Geraldine McQuillan, 81, a retired teacher.” Residents had enjoyed the attention, she said. “If he had been very critical of us we might not have loved it so much.”

McQuillan – a stalwart of the bowling club, historical society, book club, Meals on Wheels, choir and church newsletter – exemplifies the civic spirit. “I’m one of those people that joins things.”

James O’Byrne stands next to the bowling green
James O’Byrne, president of Skerries bowling club. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/The Guardian

James O’Byrne, 79, the bowling club president, agreed with Miller that no one joined committees for prestige. “I was nominated and didn’t duck quick enough.”

Kevin O’Sullivan, 62, said he and other members of the Skerries Frosties, a sea swimming group that meets daily at 9.30am, valued the socialising as much as the exercise. “The biggest part of the Frosties is the chat. It’s not a club, it’s an idea.”

There was no mystery about the egalitarian clothing, said Maeve McGann, 68. “You can’t get dressed up in Skerries – the wind will get you.” She is a driving force behind the Tidy Towns committee, whose volunteers include immigrants from eastern Europe and asylum seekers who live in a local shelter. “It’s a good way for us to get to know them.” She expressed sadness at last week’s anti-immigrant riot in central Dublin.

Residents had welcomed Miller’s endorsement with faux-hubris, said Diebold. “Newsflash from the department of the bleeding obvious: we’re the best place in the world to live.”

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