From Sealink to Ryanair

To this day departures by sea from Ireland are noisy, anxious affairs. The air is filled with wailing as children protest at being edged forward in step with piles of shopping bags and suitcases. Parents, tired and irritable, worry about getting a seat, even about getting on at all (ferries across the Irish Sea can be crowded), but know they cannot afford to fly. The flight to England takes only an hour but costs more than twice as much. Yet the long journey by boat and connecting train is hardly faster at the end of the twentieth century than it was at the beginning; the overnight crossing through Holyhead still tips passengers bleary-eyed into London’s Euston Station in the morning.

Family parties are still large (a group of seven or eight is not uncommon), the sexes still very separate. Once aboard, the men forge ahead with their teenage sons and aim straight for the bar, the video games, or the duty-free shop, while the wives, clutching last year’s baby and a toddler or two, hunt for places and shriek at the older ones wandering away. Long before the boat sails, all the seats are full, the aisles are piled with luggage, and some passengers are already asleep or drunk.

A glance can swiftly sort out the crowd into holiday makers, white-collar workers, at home on either side of the Irish Sea, and young labourers off the land, going to England to find work on building sites. In any boatload there will probably be women intent on services unobtainable in Ireland and also young people leaving Ireland forever.

In every young Irish mind, the question of emigration is inescapable as it has been since the Great Famine of the 1840s. If not, why not? And the young do not leave only for a job or better pay. Ireland, although there are now some who live there happily while defying its conventions, is still a priest-ridden land: no divorce, little secular education, almost no escape from prying eyes and gossip. Outside Dublin, the tolerance that British and other foreign residents enjoy is rarely extended to native residents.

On the Saturday evening of October 8, 1904, shortly before nine o’clock, a tall young woman with a very straight back walked up the gangway of the night boat from Dublin. She had thick red-brown hair, high cheekbones, and dark blue eyes set off by black lashes and thick black brows. Her heavy hair was drawn over her ears and fastened with long pins, the better to fit under her wide-brimmed hat. She wore a borrowed coat against the chill October wind.

…There was no one to weep at Nora Barnacle’s departure, but she did not care. She had not told her family in Galway that she was leaving Ireland, nor her employers at Finn’s Hotel in Dublin. If any of them had had a hint of what she was doing, they would have tried to stop her and might have succeeded for, at twenty, she was still a minor and she was running off with Jim Joyce.
–Brenda Maddox, _Nora_

This opening to Brenda Maddox’s wonderful biography of Nora Barnacle made me check the publication date. The book is just sixteen years old, but her ferry port description–confirmed by my own memories–meshes more closely with Nora’s Ireland than today’s. It is rooted in a time of Donnelly visas and IDA(Industrial Development Authority) ads pimping Irish graduates at Shannon Airport. From one-way Sealink to Ryanair jaunts, Ireland has travelled a ways.

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