Turbulent water: A cultural history of the Irish Sea

From Swift to Edna O’Brien, the crash of its rough waves has echoed through literature

Memories of Oliver Cromwell’s bloody Irish campaigns were long-lived. In the late 1930s, as part of a national project run by the Irish Folklore Commission, a schoolgirl named Annie Morgan of Coaghill, Williamstown, Co Galway, heard from John Gaffey, a 41-year-old farmer, that “when Cromwell died the earth refused to take him. Three times and each time the corpse was found near the grave. At last the people decided to throw him into the Irish Sea between England and Ireland. They did so and the part of the sea that Cromwell was thrown into, is rough the hottest day in summer.”

And in another story, recorded by Seán Ó Súilleabháin, “Cromwell died in Ireland and was buried there, but the Irish soil rejected his body and the coffin was found on top of the grave each morning. Finally, it was thrown into the sea and sank down between Dublin and Holyhead, thereby causing that part of the Irish sea to be very turbulent ever since.”

Following the Cromwellian plantations and the dispossession of the Catholic population, the face of the country was irrevocably changed. Journeys across the sea became a necessary aspect of Irish life, for elites seeking to consolidate their power, professionals, writers and artists in search of opportunities, or ordinary people in need of work. Writing about the sea’s roughness registered these changed realities but turbulent water also formed part of a resonant emotional vocabulary of difficult crossings and troubled passages.

Swift was in a hurry to get back to Ireland: riding high on the success of Gulliver's Travels, he was keen to see Stella, aka Esther Johnson, who lay dangerously ill in Dublin

To consider sea crossings in Irish culture is to encounter both certainty – enduring environmental realities experienced over centuries – and unpredictability, as weather events set plans awry and made haphazard work of history. Across the centuries, a great mass of people, animal and goods moved between the islands. Individual experiences, sometimes colourful, sometimes mundane, can be found in disparate sources – state documents, inventories, memoirs, diaries and correspondence. Culture offers a special kind of archive of Irish sea crossings: richly textured and patterned, sometimes able to give us the trace of ordinary lives.


One way of writing about the Irish Sea was to deny its roughness, as if to refute the suggestion that Ireland was not ready for improvement and exploitation. Such a defensive formulation began to emerge in the 17th century, even as Cromwell’s body started to churn up the sea. The earliest natural history of Ireland, written in the early 1650s by Gerard Boate, a Dutch physician who went over to Ireland with Cromwell, treats the roughness of the Irish Sea as axiomatic: “Yea it is a common proverb in England, ‘As unquiet as the Irish sea’.”

Insisting that the Irish Sea “is very much defamed both by ancient and modern writers”, Boate argues that “The Irish sea is quiet enough, except when by high winds it is stirred”: “True it is that some ships do perish upon this, but the same happeneth also upon other seas, who are all subject to the disaster of tempests and shipwracks.” The Irish Sea is scarcely rough at all, and if it is rough, well, then it is no rougher than other seas.

Looking across from Wales to Ireland in September 1727, trying but failing to see the Wicklow mountains in “hazy”, rainy weather, Jonathan Swift would not have agreed. Swift was in a hurry to get back to Ireland: riding high on the success of Gulliver’s Travels (1726), he was keen to see Stella (Esther Johnson) who lay dangerously ill in Dublin. One measure of Swift’s worry for her fate was that, when he missed the packet boat at Chester, he chose to make the arduous journey through the mountains of north Wales and sail from Holyhead. There he encountered bad weather, costly inns and a long wait, finally reaching Dublin only in early October. Stella died four months later. The two poems that Swift wrote in Holyhead, along with the journal he composed there over his seven days there, express memorable and eloquent rage at being trapped “in the worst spot in Wales under the very worst circumstances”, as he put it in the Holyhead Journal.

Swift’s Holyhead September 25th, 1727 uses images of wind and tide to convey the frustrations of a confinement imposed upon an impatient passenger:

Lo here I sit at Holy Head
With muddy ale and mouldy bread
All Christian vittals stink of fish,
I'm where my enemies would wish.

In Holyhead, Swift also wrote a poem with the title Ireland, which begins: “Remove me from this land of slaves, / Where all are fools, and all are knaves”. And the Welsh port would become an ironic recourse from bondage in Swift’s imagination: on October 21st, 1735, he wrote to Alexander Pope “as one going very fast out of the world”, saying that “my flesh and bones are to be carried to Holy-head, for I will not lie in a country of slaves”.

King George IV had intended to travel on the royal yacht, the Royal George, only to meet bad weather and rough winds on the Welsh coast

Holyhead, in Swift’s day, was not the busy port that it later became. It was only with the union that improvements to the harbour and approach roads were seriously contemplated. In 1815, the Scottish engineer Thomas Telford was commissioned to survey and improve the Holyhead Road, setting in motion one of the first great infrastructure projects of 19th-century Britain. Telford built his suspension bridge over the Menai Strait (the first such iron suspension bridge in the world, completed in 1826) and greatly improved the road. In the course of the 1800s, the Welsh port came to occupy a particular place in the Irish imagination. By the early 20th century, Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus could opine that “the shortest way to Tara is via Holyhead” while Frank O’Connor mused that “an Irishman’s private life begins at Holyhead”.

The introduction of steam on sea had been a key development. From May 1821, the steam ships the Lightning and the Meteor began to carry the mail between Kingstown (Dunleary until the departure of George IV from the port) and Holyhead. A journey from London to Dublin that could take up to four days before Telford’s road became a matter of some 40 or so hours. Later, improvements in steam technology and new rail lines reduced the journey still further so that 10 or 12 hours, with a four-hour sea crossing, came to seem normal. More broadly, these technological changes were part of the post-union opening up of Ireland, which is also the fortification of Ireland: steam ships berthed in new extended and recently fortified harbours to connect with a more extensive stage coach network, military roads and later rail links.

George IV’s visit to Ireland in 1821, the second year of his reign, stands as a pivot point, with its traces preserved on both sides of the Sea. A painting, George IV on board the Lightning, the first Post Office Steam Packet to Dublin, August 12th, 1821 had been commissioned to mark the king’s departure from Holyhead. The king had intended to travel on the royal yacht, the Royal George, only to meet bad weather and rough winds on the Welsh coast. And so he and his party transferred to the Lightning.

Just right of the centre of the painting, the mail boat can be seen with Holyhead harbour and the height of Caer Gybi visible in the distance. The Lightning is shown in starboard broadside with smoke issuing from the funnel, illuminated by bright light, with the king and his group just visible on deck.

The Royal George with its fluttering royal standard is visible to the left, flanked on the far left by the other steam-packet, the Meteor. Both the Lightning and the Meteor lie flat on the waves as if firmly quelling the sea’s action, while the older ships are tossed up by the waves. The transition from sail and steam is strongly marked: the painting is framed by the image of a frigate in bow view, receding into darkness as it fires a farewell salute, signalling the end of an era.

If the painting makes purposeful history of windy weather, its story rides roughly over the continuing realities of slow crossings in bad weather, which remained the experience of sea passengers throughout the age of steam.

Such a predicament was often described in travel writing. For instance, John Gamble, a retired army surgeon with literary ambitions, offers a vivid account of the bodily realities of travel in his Sketches of History, Politics and Manners, Taken in Dublin and the North of Ireland, in the Autumn of 1810. And he includes practical advice: “I would recommend every person who goes to sea for the first time to keep upon deck as much as possible; it is the most effectual method of avoiding sickness, and if at length he is obliged to yield to it, the tone and refreshment which the pure and cold air has given him shortens in duration, and weakens in violence.”

The phenomenon of sea crossings is both public and private; it traversed centuries, countries and lives in diffuse, intricate patterns

Failing that (surely familiar) protection, Gamble recommends that when “a person is compelled by sea-sickness to quit the deck and betake himself to his berth, he should stretch himself as much at length as possible, with his head low and firmly pressed to the pillow, endeavouring to lose all motion of his own, and to accommodate himself to the ship’s. Wine or spirits is bad; though, of the two, the latter diluted with water is preferable.” Gamble’s list continues, finally ending with the suggestion of “a small opiate plaister, applied to the pit of the stomach”, a precursor to modern motion sickness tablets.

Get some air, avoid alcohol, lie flat, take medicine – Gamble’s advice seems evergreen, in spite of the latest improvements in travel. Prior to the advent of cheap air travel, rough crossings of the Irish Sea seemed both fated and inevitable, carrying with them the weight of history.

Austin Clarke captures this process in oblique lines from his long autobiographical poem The Hippophagi: “Weather reports / Lay bare our soul in ancient ports.” That laying bare of the soul was to play a key part of the social history of 20th-century Ireland. Edna O’Brien captures the impress of the journey over these rough waves when Cait and Baba set sail from Dublin to Liverpool at the end of her novel, The Lonely Girl (the second in The Country Girls trilogy, 1962).

A pregnant friend asks Cait to send abortion pills from England, reminding readers of the many women in 20th- and early 21st-century Ireland whose terminations were “pushed out of sight on the Liverpool boat”, as Mary Holland once remarked. As the two young women leave Ireland on board the Hibernia, the ship sounds “like a hundred lavatories flushing”. Further out to sea, Baba prepares for life in London by doling out seasickness tablets “in case we puke all over the damn ship”: “If I’m sick, twill spoil everything, Baba said as she burped, and then put a hand towel over her new dress, for safety’s sake.”

The phenomenon of sea crossings is both public and private; it traversed centuries, countries and lives in diffuse, intricate patterns. Yet the crash of the rough waves of the Irish Sea has been condensed and crystallised within compelling literary metaphors.

In Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September (1929), Lois draws on the remembered miseries of the sea crossing to feed an “inner blankness”: “She was lonely, and saw there was no future. She shut her eyes and tried – as sometimes when she was seasick, locked in misery between Holyhead and Kingstown – to be enclosed in a nonentity, in some ideal no-place, locked and clear as a bubble.”

The Last September reimagines seasickness as a kind of negative freedom, allowing the past to invade the present via the intense image of a “no-place” on board ship. As with Swift’s suggestion of burial in Holyhead, Bowen finds in the sea’s roughness a form of miserable release from both isolation and connection: sickness as strange resource, turbulent water remade in painful memory.