The Irish Sea is the most complete form of emptiness I have ever witnessed. On the coast, the line between loneliness and solitude is thin and can shift quickly, like the tide. Everywhere I go, the sea is there, brushing the coasts of Belfast’s downtown, winding its way past my house camouflaged as the Lagan River. Sweeping up against the northern beaches of Derry and pushing the entire city of Dublin deeper into the Island. You can never travel more than a day, in a car or train, without finding it again.
The sea perforates the land, carving veins into the beating heart of Ireland. The River Shannon runs silver through Limerick toward the north. Just a few hours away, the River Liffey snakes its way through downtown Dublin. But the sea draws no lines between my Northern Irish home and the rest of the island. Instead, it is a thick, flat expanse on which the EU erects an invisible boundary, keeping the island whole for a little longer.
From Belfast, the sea is only an hour walk away or a 20-minute train ride. It reminds me of Lake Superior, the lake I grew up on in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. As the largest freshwater lake in the world, Superior often behaves somewhat like an ocean. My peninsula home is surrounded by water on three sides, and I feel safer, knowing the Irish isle is cradled by the sea, independent yet cared for.
Just like at home, the Northern Irish locals have built hobbies and honed crafts reliant on the water. A woman I met sells sea glass jewelry, exactly like the kind my sister makes. At Saint George’s Market, I see lines of fresh caught fish and I recall the scent of smoked fish along the Michigan harbors. A great tiled fish adorns the bank of Belfast’s River, and I am reminded of the decorated fish that pop up around town each year at the Marquette Art festival. It is heartwarming, to see how the sea connects my new community, just as it did for the one I grew up in.
Early one morning, I was able to explore the Cliffs of Moher on the western coast. Even in the depths of December, the grass was alive and warm in the setting sun. I wanted to bottle the air. Save it up and drink in great gulps of it. We hiked until we ran out of cliffs, until the land bled softly into the water in slow mounds of rolling green. These cliffs do not deal in the currency of hours and minutes, or even days. They barter eons and centuries, a constant war of wind and sun.
The sea draws us all in, at one time or another. I hear stories of saving a seal during the tide, kayaking on bumpy rivers, the Welsh side of the channel, rivers running in the meadow just outside the window, and the sea birds that will come to the island in April. The sea asks no questions, but gives us all so many answers.