It’s just one single sentence in Shiprocked – Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline”
“I was 19 when I left Dublin, crossing the Irish Sea on the Liverpool ferry, like so many millions of emigrants before me”.
Just a single sentence in the precis of the events that propelled me to the right place, at the right time, to get sucked into one of the most wonderful life-changing adventures of my years to date.
But behind that one sentence is a life-changing moment of its own, of course.
As that leaving of the city of my birth took place 30 years ago tonight, maybe now is the time to remember . . .
I was 19 when I left Dublin, crossing the Irish Sea on the Liverpool ferry, like so many millions of emigrants before me.
Standing out on the deck of the B&I Line ferry Munster as we sailed from Dublin port on the night of Friday May 4th, 1984, I felt very alone, and already cut off from my former life, friends and family. This was despite the fact that my parents were actually on board the ship, having offered to drive me down to London where I would be staying with my aunt in Harrow until I could get on my feet and find a place of my own.
Although emigrating at a time when huge numbers of young people were leaving the country as part of the 80s recession, there seemed then to be nothing different or defining about those years – for as long as anyone could remember times had always been tough, and jobs always scarce. Getting on the boat to go to England was just something you did after leaving school.
In some ways I was one of the lucky ones, I had managed to eventually find work in a small computer company, but for almost slave wages, and with no prospect of advancement. I had pretty quickly come to the decision that I needed to cross the sea to England to find a better job with more opportunities, and had planned for this moment for ages, but theory and practice are two different things.
Over the past few weeks as I prepared to move, I had been too excited in planning my new future to think about what I was leaving behind, but now, standing outside on the back deck of the ferry as we prepared to leave the port, it suddenly hit me that my entire life up to this point was being jettisoned. All the friends I had made since leaving school, my colleagues at work and the customers I supported, some of whom I had become quite close to, the friends at various groups where I volunteered and spent my happy weekend hours. My new job would be exciting, and possibly form the foundations of a career, but there would be a huge hole in my life, a lot of friends and regular activities left behind.
But it would be the city itself that I missed the most.
From an early age I had been an explorer, and there was hardly a laneway or mountain road in Dublin and Wicklow that I had not explored on my bicycle in my teenage years, not a housing estate that I did not know.
I had roamed unchecked through long summer holidays, poring over maps and exploring every side turning or interesting looking road. Even the Dublin city bus timetable had been a thing of wonder to me, a treasure trove of names of unexplored places and strange footnotes, and I had explored the city by bus too, taking two months during the summer holidays of 78 and 79 during which I spent every day travelling end to end on as many bus routes as possible, becoming familiar with all the suburbs and the far flung estates, charting my progress in red marker on a one inch Ordinance Survey map, sometimes doing routes several times in order to experience the extended or diverted r outings in the footnotes.
Unremarkable and frequent routes to places such as Blanchardstown, Bohernabreena, Dalkey and Dollymount would be explored alongside the rare and infrequent workings to places such as Hollywood Cross, Burrow, Oldtown, Shop River and the piece de resistance: Newtownmountkennedy, which not only had the longest placename in the Dublin city timetable, but was only served once a week to boot.
It was dark as the ferry sailed at 1030pm, and many of the further flung parts of my empire could not be seen, though the Dublin mountains were visible as a dark brooding presence on the skyline, bereft of lights. But as we moved out of the port heading towards the bay, there was muchmore that could be seen. On our starboard side was the Great South Wall, where my father used to take us as children, terrifying us with the thought that he might accidentally drive the car off the unguarded side of the roadway into the sea. This was a fate which, he told us gravely, had befallen a schoolteacher by the name of Mr. Ring many years earlier, hence the fact that the area was known as “Ringsend”.
On the other side, the Bull Island and the Northern walkway stretched out into the sea, reached by the wooden bridge from Dollymount. Many a Saturday I had gone out along it as far as I could on my bike, enjoying the wind and the salt air on my face, staring out to sea and imagining all things that lay to the east.
Now I was on that sea, and heading east, and looking back at the walkway, and it’s giant Virgin Mary statue, and wondering when I would be there again.
The Clontarf road was very visible, streetlights spaced all along the seafront, and I could see a number 30 bus making progress out towards Dollymount, a little cluster of lights racing along the seafront, stopping from time to time and being overtaken by seemingly miniature cars. Gradually it fell behind us until the cars and buses could no longer be distinguished from the streetlights, then the great bulk of Howth Head swept past us on our port side, till it too fell behind, and the city was no more a single patch of brightly lit horizon than individual areas.
As the Ferry moved out into the bay, I stayed out on deck in the darkness, long after all the other passengers had returned to the warm and lighted interior.
My parents did not come looking for me, perhaps understanding my need to be alone as I watched the slow disappearance of everything that I was leaving behind.