“The British Isles depend on the sea, but we who live here can suffer from sea-blindness, little realising how much our way of life is made possible through ships that bring goods and food, export our manufactured products, and provide the naval defence of our island.”
These are the opening words of a book by John Blake called “Sea Charts of the British Isles” which brings together an array of old maps from the UK and Ireland, and outlines the development of maritime map making in the UK.
People living on the west coast of Ireland seem more connected to the sea than those on the east. But in general, I get the feeling that the vast majority of people who live in Ireland forget they live on an Island. When people outside of Ireland look upon the map of Ireland they must have a certain expectation about how we experience or engage with the ocean. There are some who sail or dive, others who surf or swim, and others who love the sea for hiking, nature, or the pleasure of a day under the sun. Yet I have often walked along the five km of beach on Bull Island and been entirely alone – even though this beach is close to the city centre of Dublin. For most there is no need to reach out to the sea. It is a place of no meaning, like a void of information.
Britain is to the east, but with fast ferry connections to Holyhead, Stranraer, and Pembroke, the Irish Sea seems to be something other than water, an entirely empty space, something only imagined but not encountered. On the west coast of Ireland there is more certainty about the Atlantic. It has more of a roar. It is a place that decimated the Armada and a thousand other small boats. And though the east coast has its own share of shipwrecks, these are less part of the culture of most people who now live close to those tragic locations.
On the east coast there are few who have a family heritage connected to life on small boats. In most of Dublin, due to the shallow coastline, we do not engage much with the sea. In the countryside it is easy to find those who are embedded in a culture of farming. But how many fishermen lived on the east coast even by the 1970s? In Dublin, very few people live within view of the Irish Sea. The vast majority of those who live in Dublin, live and work beyond the visibility of water. It is possible to live even in coastal areas like Sandymount or Blackrock – right next to the Irish Sea and yet rarely consider the great body of water swirling close-by.
Before the Vikings came to Ireland, few could have lived at the edge of water without being aware of it. And we can also say the same about the sky. So often we live and work inside our houses, our cities, and means of transport. That the great expanse above us, the largest single element regularly encountered by our field of vision is ignored. There are few who can describe clouds, or put a name on anything other than the Moon.
The moon is approximately 400,000 km away. It is about 5000 km from Mayo to New York, a multiple. If you consider a flight from Ireland to New York and do it eighty times. And yet this distance is like a single particle of sand on any strand in Ireland compared to distances related to anything in the Universe. We spin around the sun, and the sun spins around the Milky Way, and the Milky Way spins around our neighbour Andromeda, and this local cluster orbits an even bigger group the Virgo Cluster and so on without barely getting anywhere. All this is happening on a mass scale, right in front of us, just like the ocean and yet we are mostly blind to both the sea and also space.