Islands in the sea

An odd sight among the three lanes of traffic travelling the M5 motorway, a car from the Irish county of Wexford with a 2021 registration. Someone had been given the opportunity to escape from the island on which they lived and to come to one which is considerably more crowded.

The Covid restrictions have trapped people on an island. The holidaymakers who would be journeying to foreign destinations now pay premium rates for accommodation in England, pricing out those who ordinarily might have enjoyed a holiday in Devon or Cornwall. There is a greater awareness of living on an island.

Yet geographical confines do not necessarily create a feeling of insularity. Once I met a man on the island of Cape Clear off of the west coast of Cork who commented, “Only when I go to the mainland do I become aware of living on an island.”

It had seemed an unlikely assertion. Surely, living in a community of just a hundred and twenty people with everything arriving by boat, there was a daily sense of the insular? But  might he not have pointed a finger back, “don’t you live on an island? What awareness have you of being insular?”

Aren’t islands a matter of perspective?

A woman I knew in Northern Ireland came from Cumbrae in the Firth of Clyde. Blessed with a wonderful sense of humour, she would tell a story of the minister on Great Cumbrae who would stand in the kirk on the Sabbath and pray for the islands of Great and Little Cumbrae and for the offshore nations of Scotland and England.

Of course, the man in the community of ten dozen souls and the reverend gentleman offering intercession on Sunday would both have been right. Geographical insularity is the natural order of things in this small archipelago of islands off of the North-West coast of Europe.

Growing up in Somerset of the 1960s and 1970s, there would have been geography lessons reminding us how close the sea was to each of us and history lessons on the importance of the sea to the power and wealth of imperial times. Had Britain not been an island, waves of invaders would have swept through in successive centuries and the opportunity to use the sea to national advantage might never have arisen. (It is hard now to imagine how dominant Britain became, militarily and economically; in 1913 it accounted for 44% of all international investment in the world).

“Only when I go to the mainland do I become aware of living on an island,” said the man.

Maybe we all live on our own islands, though, or at least wish to do so. “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space,” declared Shakespeare’s melancholic prince of Denmark. Perhaps the man on the island, bounded in a geographical nutshell, really had found a sense of infinite space.

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