If Galway Bay was covered with a sheet of strong glass, and if the skies reflected off it, like they do off the water on a summer’s day, you can be sure we would be out there all the time, slipping and sliding on it, falling on our arses on it, making up strange glass-bound games to play on this strange playground.
If it stretched pane-like all the way across to Ballyvaughan, we would be like Irish Inuits, scooting across it pulled by an army of donkeys with ash hurls on their feet. We’d never be off it. But if the glass ended at the edge of the bay, our journey would probably stop there. And we’d trek back, having been to the edge, without any great desire to go further.
But it’s not made of glass, so we’re not out on it all the time. So we look at the sea and we think of ways to stop ourselves falling into it. Maybe we’re a generation bred on the fears of Synge. Maybe we’ve seen too many plays with Aran Island mammies wailing the loss of child after child, sacrificial lambs to the waves that lap at our shores. And then there is the likes of Gavan Hennigan — mad for nautical road. Give him an oar and off he disappears over the horizon, like a tribesman in Moana.
And of the many things that Gavan achieved when he rowed trans-Atlantic earlier this year, perhaps the most important was the sense of adventure he awoke in all of us. Suddenly at night, we became conscious of the giant waves he was battling; of the giant seagulls he was conversing with.
We also got a glimpse of what goes on at sea, unknown to us all, with the tragic loss of Rescue 116. Not since then have any of us looked at a rescue helicopter flying in and out of the city, without thinking of the great dangers that are inherent with every single seemingly simple operation they undertake so we can live our lives.
So there is a magic and drama about the sea that grabs us all. One cannot look at the sea without feeling an impulse to embrace it, either in it or above it. It is hard for any of us to stand at the edge of the water and not wish for the wings of a swallow. The sea too, looks at us and wants to come to us. It does not like to be restrained by ugly walls or rocks or shores and every chance it gets to come ashore it does. Lapping at our feet like a playful puppy, but roared on like a lion when the mood takes it.
We have a strange relationship with the sea here in Galway. For centuries, it was our thing. It brought people here. We sang about it. In fact we did everything with it apart from truly embrace it as a key part of our culture. It shapes us. We are a city on the edge of something. Push the sea further out west and we are but a midland place, soggy, our socks damp from the bog, not from the heaving froth of a morning wave bringing some other bit of madness.
If it were not there, we would have forged further westward into the Atlantic and the magic of this place might not be what it is. Here in Galway, it is as if we have been ignoring it, treating it as something that hems us in, rather than invites us out.
We often look at the sea as the ending of one land and the faraway beginning of another, but let us not forget that oceans just separate lands and not souls. The sheer brutal power of the sea we share here is that which is experienced in Newfoundland. I love the Annie Proux book Shipping News, celebrating the link between a seaside community, its local paper and the vagaries of life. Right across from us, over that ocean.
So let’s turn around, everyone, and look at the sea, and think of the possibilities. Let our new buildings face it, be high enough to see over it; let it bring more people to us, through the development of the port; let it become more accessible to all. Let SeaFest this weekend show all those possibilities. Feed this information into the minds of the young who will not let such a resource go unreleased as perhaps this generation has.
Fair play to Peter Heffernan and his team at the Marine Institute for organising SeaFest — a spectacular event that will draw the guts of 100,000 to the city this weekend. From my lofty perch at the top of the Advertiser building in Eyre Square, I can see, through a gap between Foxes and the Meyrick Hotel, a straight line across the bay to Renville where the Marine Institute building gleams in the morning sun. In here, thankfully, we are fortunate to have world leaders in sea exploration, using technology that is used to perform many tasks, mainly scientific, but earlier this year, they performed a human task when their robotics were used to help search for the crew of Rescue 116.
This week come to Galway and bring your family and friends along to see the wonders of the seas. There probably won’t be an inch of water that won’t be covered by something wild and wonderful at the Docks. There are so many things to see. Let yourself be seduced by the waves.
Fifty four years ago this month, John F Kennedy stood in Eyre Square and invited people through the mists of another metaphor to go down to the bay and look west “and if your sight was good enough, you would see Boston, Massachusetts.”
Maybe it’s time we stopped staring over the seas to see what’s on the other side, and looked more at what’s under our noses. Enjoy SeaFest. It’s going to be fantastic.