Mary Delany and the Irish Sea

Best known for her ‘paper mosaicks’, or botanically accurate flower collages, Mary Delany (1700-1788) spent a lot of time crossing – or waiting to cross – the Irish Sea.


Mary Delany (1700-1788) was no stranger to crossing the Irish Sea. She had made one trip to Ireland as a young widow in 1731 and, when she later lived in Ireland between 1744 and 1767, she made regular visits back to England. Delany generally made the crossing from Parkgate, near Chester, travelling down the River Dee to the Irish Sea. She describes it in a letter to her sister, written during an extended weather-induced stay in 1747: ‘Park Gate consists of about 50 or 60 houses in an irregular line by the water side; the river Dee runs from Chester, but is not navigable further than this place. A few ships lie before us, and continually people passing and repassing, which is some amusement.’ It is fortunate that she found the activity of the ships and people amusing, for if anything characterizes Delany’s trips across the Irish Sea, it’s this sense of waiting.

Many of her trips were coupled with extended stopovers in Chester or Parkgate, where she remained in a status of limbo until the arrival of favourable winds. A family story, still related decades after her death, tells of one of these occasions where she ended up at Parkgate for so long that she ‘exhausted her materials for employment’. Described by her husband, Patrick Delany, as a person who ‘works even between the coolings of her tea’, being idle was never an option for Mary Delany. So, when she saw a painter setting up to repaint an inn sign, she promptly paid him his fee, borrowed his paints and brushes, and painted the sign herself. References to these weather-related delays echo through her letters.

On her way to Ireland for the first time in 1731, she writes from Chester: ‘[t]he weather hitherto has been contrary to us, and we are so cautious that we will not venture till the weather is well settled.’ Caution was important as a safe crossing could not be taken for granted. In 1758 Delany related the loss of a ship travelling from Parkgate to Dublin, a route she had travelled only three months previously: ‘[e]very passenger and the cargo are said to be lost… It is impossible not to be shocked at such a calamity, though a great consolation that none of one’s particular acquaintance have suffered.’ This comment might appear rather unfeeling, but it also reflects the fact that it easily could have been her or one of her close friends who regularly travelled between Ireland and England. A safe trip did not necessarily mean a pleasant trip. In 1744 she writes of the changeable nature of crossings:

On Tuesday the day was so fine that I sat on deck the whole day and eat [sic] a very good dinner and an egg for my supper, and worked and drew two or three sketches; nothing could be more pleasant… but we went on slowly not having wind enough. In the evening the weather grew more favourable for our sailing, but made the ship roll, and we were very ill all night, and the next day till about 5, that they came to the cabin and said we were just entering the bay of Dublin; upon which we got up and were soon cured by the good weather and fair prospect of landing soon.

It is perhaps unsurprising that, after a particularly rough journey where they made the trip from Parkgate to Dublin in just thirteen hours with ‘[a]ll on board excessively sick’, Delany commences the next letter to her sister with ‘I bless God we are safe at home!’