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An innocuous journey or surfing the waves of history? How a ferry voyage can connect us with the seascape and nudge the historical consciousness.

There is a song by the folk rock band The Waterboys called ‘This is the Sea’. It concerns the changes in life, using the sea as a metaphor: Once you were tethered, Now you are free, That was the river, This is the sea. For some reason I had those lyrics in my mind when, in March 2022, I made my first visit to Ireland. Granted, it was a stag ‘do’ in Dublin which lasted a brief three nights and much of the time was spent acquainting ourselves with a particular dark beverage. Yet we still managed a few sights which at least gave us a pretence of a structured itinerary and the appearance of an inquisitive ensemble of visitors. A very enjoyable few days for sure, but an added layer of satisfaction for me was the journey to Dublin itself that involved the crossing of the Irish Sea.

The Waterboys hinted at the new opportunities that present themselves in life, and our ability to create new stories. Undoubtedly we could apply this to the Irish Sea; the historical connections, indeed the historical forces that have surfed those waves over the centuries cannot be ignored. For better or worse, the Irish Sea has offered opportunities – some devious and cruel, others enlightening and enriching. It has played an important role in the histories of these islands, and to this day continues to shape our narratives and identities.

Living in Swansea, I admit I am quite fond of the sea. For my excursion, I took the ferry from Fishguard to Rosslare and then the train north along the east coast to the Irish capital. Unashamedly, the child in me gets rather excited at the prospect of a sea crossing, imagining myself as a ninth-century Viking setting off to discover new lands, yet at the same time checking the marine traffic app on my smartphone to see what other vessels are in the vicinity. To put it more flamboyantly, I’ll quote the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: ‘My soul is full of longing for the secrets of the sea, and the heart of the great ocean sends a thrilling pulse through me.’

Harnessing the spirit of Longfellow’s words, I couldn’t have asked for better weather for the lunchtime crossing, the sun shining brightly in the blue skies and the sea as smooth as glass. As the ferry set out from Fishguard, I stood on deck to watch the disappearing Welsh coastline in the haze of a spring sun, realising that this was a view that many would have experienced over the centuries. The Irish Sea has, after all, played a major role as a conduit of historical forces for a very long time, connecting the peoples of these islands in north-western Europe through language, culture, trade, migration, diplomacy, politics, and war. Neolithic sites in Ireland attest to the crossing of peoples whilst the Romans later traded with the tribes of Hibernia, exchanging metals, cattle, grain, and enslaved people across the Irish Sea in return for oils and craft ware. And soon, Irish tribes such as the Déisi sailed east and settled in parts of Wales and Cornwall, their archaeological footprint dotted across these lands being the many inscription stones with and without ogham.

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