Ports, Past and Present

Seas of Ideas: Women and the Ireland-Wales Crossing c. 1800

The ‘acres of scintillating sea’ that ripple through Gwyneth Lewis’s 2007 poem ‘Prayer for the Horizon’ are no less than a figure for life’s passage, uncertainly steered through hazy ups-and-downs towards the final ‘event horizon’. The poem begins, however, on an altogether more practical and prosaic note: 

I wish you, first, an unimpeded view 
with a boundary in it, between seen and unseen, 
a line to hold onto when you’re feeling sick, 
something to aim for but which retreats 
as fast as you travel. (1)

Nothing in Lewis’s poem tells us which route this particular horizon might define. It’s probably nowhere and everywhere – ‘seen and unseen’ – but it could just as easily be set somewhere between Ireland and Wales, one of the long-running ‘cultural conversation[s]’ of Lewis’s writing life. (2)

At the ‘Ports, Past and Present’ project, we’re currently researching archival material relating to our five port towns of Dublin, Rosslare, Holyhead, Fishguard and Pembroke Dock. We’re gathering material and taking all kinds of impressions of the past – events, stories, encounters, images, writings, films – that we hope will inspire new creative connections in our own time. Women’s voices is a distinct strand within this work, though often buried in private letters or unpublished journals, these voices aren’t always easy to hear today. This post briefly introduces a few women commenting on travel across the busy Irish Sea area around the turn of the nineteenth century.  

Fig. 1. Sarah Grace Carr, ‘Holy head – 27 August 1819’, National Library of Wales, Public Domain

When Mary Wollstonecraft crossed from Holyhead to Dublin – ‘the best and shortest passage’, she noted – in October 1786, she was lucky. ‘[T]he weather was fine the prospects delightful’, she wrote in a letter to Eliza Bishop, looking back on the voyage, during which she met ‘a young Clergyman’ (probably Rev. Henry Gabell) also heading to begin tutoring work in Ireland, and ‘was in company with’ Arthur James Plunkett (Lord Fingall), a prominent Catholic peer opposed to the movement for Irish independence. Testament, perhaps, to the ‘sea of thoughts’ (original emphasis) she described herself as ‘lost in’ during this journey, Wollstonecraft concludes on a barbed note: ‘I would sooner tell you a tale of some humbler creatures … I shall make a point of finding them out’. As in Lewis’s poem, the line of travel may be one of hard-won insight: ‘the gift / of knowing where your own knowing ends’. 

Conditions during crossings could of course be challenging in a variety of ways. We know that sea travel in the period was often difficult, uncomfortable and dangerous. Anne Plumptre gives us a tantalising glimpse of the state of travel for women in her 1817 Narrative of a Residence in Ireland, observing that ‘very little attention is paid in general to the accommodation of female passengers’. It’s not clear exactly what she means here, but she goes on to reveal that women at sea sometimes prepared travelling comforts that went beyond physical surroundings. ‘I had made a little provision of food for the mind’, she writes, ‘and had put up some books with my other sea stores: among these was Lady Morgan’s excellent novel of O’Donnel. – As I was going to visit a part of Ireland admirably described in this work, the county of Antrim, and had besides a letter of introduction to the amiable authoress at Dublin, it received great additional interest from being read as I was crossing the Irish Channel.’ Sydney Owenson’s (Lady Morgan) O’Donnel (1814), a national tale-related work that explores themes of Irish ‘improvement’ (particularly in infrastructural terms) and identity, isn’t widely read today. (3) But it’s interesting that Plumptre was using it as a form of research ahead of her Irish stay – not so much a sea of ideas, but ideas on the sea, perhaps. 

The ships serving the Irish Sea routes were clearly impressive vessels. In 1797, the novelist and travel writer Catherine Hutton described them like this:  

The packets from Holyhead to Dublin are fine sloops of 70 tons burthen. I saw one at Caernarvon, wainscoted with mahogany, elegantly fitted up and furnished. They can carry a hundred persons each, but they only have sixteen beds. They are each allowed fourteen hands, though four would be sufficient to navigate the vessel. They are fast sailors, and will live in any sea, provided they have room. (4)

When it wasn’t dull or just uncomfortable, travel could be all too interesting – emotionally draining or painful as well as physically dangerous. In 1802, Mary Anne Eade made a different kind of prayer to the horizon when contemplating her journey from Anglesey to Dublin. Thinking of her little boy at home in London, and worrying that she might never see him again, Eade links her anxious state of mind with the harp music she’s listening to at a Welsh inn:  

my mind during this interval naturally dwelt on all those dear friends from whom the boundless ocean was so soon to separate me, to separate me indeed for but a very short time, but the idea of having the rolling sea between us was so new & so strange as to appear to me quite frightful; with this idea in my head I fa˄ncied the air in question seemed to correspond with my feelings, & that it lamented the pain of an approaching exile; I was induced to ask the harper the name of it, & found by his answer that the music had spoken truly, for it was a song made on the commencement of a long journey & began with a farewell to the friends whom the traveller was about to leave. (5)

She was right to be cautious. After a stay in Dublin and a tour of Wicklow, Eade returns to Holyhead, narrowly escaping injury when, within sight of the port, part of the mast collapses: 

soon after the Head faintly appeared in the horizon … a sudden crash over our heads fearfully reminded us we were not yet secure of obtaining it: this proceeded from the fall of our topmast, which a sudden squall took compleatly [sic] in half, happily the rigging prevented its falling quite down, or probably my head would have received it & my dear little boy been obliged to find in you a mother, as well as an aunt… (6)

(1) Commissioned by the BBC for Radio 3’s The Verb. See https://www.poetryinternational.org/pi/poem/10458/auto/0/0/Gwyneth-Lewis/PRAYER-FOR-THE-HORIZON/en/tile

(2) For Lewis’s discussion of Ireland-Wales ‘literary traditions’ and ‘cultural conversation’, see ‘Criss-Crossings: Literary Adventures on Irish and Welsh Shores’, Poetry Review 98.3 (2008), 54-72.

(3) For a recent discussion of the novel by Nicola Lloyd, see ‘Canals, Commerce and the Construction of Nation in Sydney Owenson’s O’Donnel’, Romantic Textualities 22 (2017), http://www.romtext.org.uk/articles/rt22_n04/  

(4) Catherine Hutton’s Tours of Wales 1796-1800 will shortly appear (edited by Mary-Ann Constantine) as part of the ‘Curious Travellers’ online edition of Welsh and Scottish manuscript tours; see https://editions.curioustravellers.ac.uk/pages/tours.html

(5)(6) For the full text of Mary Anne Eade’s 1802 Welsh tour, see https://editions.curioustravellers.ac.uk/pages/show.html?document=0013.xml 

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