The General Synopsis At Midnight

‘Sailing By’ (and saying goodbye)

The General Synopsis At Midnight kicked off when Gordon Snell presented me with the inaugural Maeve Binchy Travel award in UCD’s Newman House on May 27th 2014. With Gordon SnellAnd look, here we are. I think the chap standing between us is a pickpocket. Since then, I visited the 31 Sea Areas of the Shipping Forecast by land, water and air and – in the case of those I explored through their folklore or history – by making things up. And now, six months later, it’s time to put the map away and listen to Sailing By, the music by Ronald Binge that accompanies the 0048 broadcast. (Have a listen, but be warned: it’s hypnotic.) If you’re new to this project, then the easiest thing is to back to the beginning and work your way forward. It’s a blog, not Serial – I know, right? as Sarah Koenig might say, like, right? – it doesn’t really matter if you read them in the wrong order, but it would make more sense to start here, Counting Down To Midnight.

Among other highlights, I’ve curled up – literally – in a curved bunk high in the Fastnet Rock lighthouse and nodded off while watching its six-tonne lamp flash 50 kilometres into the dark night. In a heatwave I tootled around the Isles of Scilly, where in 1707 Admiral Sir Cloudsely Shovell lost his fleet of four ships to the rocks because he couldn’t understand what direction they were heading. (Unlucky for him, yet a happy ending for the rest of us because the Board of Longitude was established as a result.) I’ve sat next to Craig Snell, a Maritime Forecaster in the UK Met Office, while he explained how he writes a Forecast. I’ve got lost – many times – and found the unexpected as a result… Yet where better to end the project than at a celebration of the ninetieth anniversary of the first official airing of the BBC Shipping Forecast? It was, I reckoned, probably as close to visiting all the sea areas in one go as it’s possible to get. (Apart from listening to the Shipping Forecast itself, that is.) Charlie Connolly who wrote the wonderful travel guide Attention All Shipping, had a one man show on board the Cutty Sark recently. As he said himself, ‘I’m one man and I’ll be making a show of myself, so it’s probably appropriate’.cutty sark morning

A state-of-the-art tea clipper from the days before steam ships, and now the nautical equivalent of a Grade I listed building, the Cutty Sark is in dry dock in Greenwich in south-east London. Greenwich has the atmosphere of an open-air maritime museum: a Grade I listed air hangs over the entire town, and the spidery masts of the Cutty Sark rise delicately above a genteel row of eye-wateringly pricey houses. It’s strange to see a boat butting up so close to buildings and cars in a city; it is a brighter, Georgian version of the Hitchcock film Marnie, in which a vast ship forms an abrupt and unsettling end to a red-bricked terrace. Time flies by here – literally, because outside the Royal Observatory nearby a long piece of brass set into the ground represents zero degrees longitude, so you can hop from east to west and back again in a trice. On a wet day, you don’t even have to change puddles.

To an audience of Shipping Forecast fans in the Cutty Sark’s tiny theatre space, Charlie Connolly’s tour began and ended in Greenwich and more than delivered on his promise of, ‘history, travel, stories, iffy jokes, a bar and an interval and everything.’ on the cutty sark(And there I am, in the aforementioned interval). Now, it’s not that I was expecting Captains Birds Eye, Pugwash and Hook to be in the front row or anything, but I did look around the audience and assume that like me, they were all armchair enthusiasts; people who love the Forecast for its poetry, but don’t depend on it for their livelihood or welfare. Since I began this project, many people have asked me who still uses the Shipping Forecast these days? Who needs it, now that all the information you could possibly want is available online? It was one of the first questions I had for Craig Snell when I pulled up a chair at his desk last July. The BBC too has been asking this question: last year it sent out a questionnaire to members of the Royal Yachting Association, the national governing body for boating, enquiring how they get their information about the weather when they’re at sea. If the answer had come back ‘duh, the internet,’ would that have meant the death knell for the Forecast and its nighttime companion music? Radio 4 controller Denis Nowlan said the survey showed – phew! – the Forecast on Radio 4 longwave continues to be a primary or secondary source of marine safety information. An informal survey the BBC Feedback programme held at the Cornish fishing port Newlyn revealed that, although younger fishermen are less likely to use it as their go-to source, it’s because the longwave broadcast isn’t at the mercy of digital signals and technology that it’s still relied upon.

That the Shipping Forecast is still relevant for those using it for marine safety is good to know, yet an incident in May this year unintentionally highlighted its enduring popularity with us landlubbers. The 5.20am broadcast on Friday May 30th failed to air because of a technical whoopsie, and listener reactions ranged from, ‘I didn’t know whether I should leave the house or not,’ to ‘but if UK submarines don’t hear it, don’t they begin a nuclear attack?’ (That Royal Navy nuclear submarines commanders are required to leap into attack mode if they don’t hear the Shipping Forecast is a long-standing urban myth. It has been roundly poo-poohed by the Navy, though methinks they doth protest too much…)

One thing that has stuck with me over the last six months, but particularly when I went to York during my visit to Sea Areas Humber and Dogger is: how do we ever really know where we’re going, despite all the preparation? The Shipping Forecast is a guide; a prediction not a certainty. As Sir Cloudsely Shovell and the crew of the Cita (among many, many others) could tell us, we are human and we can so easily be wrong. And yet, for those of us who tune in late at night because we love the language rather than need the information, it isn’t a prediction at all. Viking, Cromarty, German Bight, Fastnet, Rockall, Malin… these form a lullaby that conjures up dreamlike, inky seas. Viking invasions and U-Boats. Long-dead pirates and islands battered by storms. For us, the Shipping Forecast becomes a promise of hope, and of a new day breaking.

400px-UK_shipping_forecast_zonesThough my explorings and wanderings are over, in another way the project is beginning, because now I have the fun of playing with all this fact and trying to turn it into fiction. I’m ending The General Synopsis at Midnight by listening to today’s lunchtime broadcast. Showers are expected later today in my nearest area, Irish Sea, in case you’re wondering. Did Craig Snell write this one? Thanks to the Maeve Binchy Travel Award I am able to picture him sitting at his desk in front of a bank of screens, painstakingly making the world at sea safer and more knowable for the rest of us. At the words Northeast Fitzroy, Sole I’m back on St Agnes on the isles of Scilly chatting to a stranger about why a man would choose to be buried standing up; with FaeroesSoutheast Iceland I’m on a boat in the ninth century determined to find a land that supposedly doesn’t exist; with Lundy, Fastnet I’m staring up at the black tower of Ballycotton lighthouse…


With many thanks to:
Professor Margaret Kelleher, Dr Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, Niall McMonagle and James Ryan: the UCD Maeve Binchy Award committee.
John Gore Grimes and Captain Harry McClenahan of The Commissioners of Irish Lights.
Imelda Rogers and the UK Met Office, Exeter.
The Binchy family, and to Gordon Snell particularly for his kindness, support and enthusiasm.

Sea more / hear more:
Each of the 31 sea areas is explored in The General Synopsis at Midnight on this blog, and any interesting sources or references I came across are listed with each entry.

For other bits and bobs, I was on the Marian Finucane radio show on May 31st, and again on September 20th to talk about my stay on Fastnet.

And lastly… a piece I wrote for Sunday Miscellany on RTE Radio 1, broadcast on November 2nd 2014.

And finally, it’s time for Sailing By

The General Synopsis At Midnight

Sea areas Irish Sea & Thames: “I’m really passionate about whatever we come up with.”

Harrison Blue Plaque, London This trip was a quick hop from Area Irish Sea – once known as Area Mersey – to Area Thames, which runs from the border with Humber down to North Foreland in Kent. I was off to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich to see the exhibition ‘The Quest For Longitude’. Particularly apt today, as November 18th is the day the 2014 Longitude Prize opens for submissions. But we’ll come back to that. Let’s whizz back a bit first, to a time when fortunes were staked – and often lost – on long and often-dangerous voyages. So what? says you, sure aren’t there fortunes travelling the high seas every day? Well, yes, but nowadays those who take to the water have the distinct advantage of knowing where they are and where they are going. It was not always the case. On land there are fixed points so it has always been relatively easy to find where you are. Which meant that in the past, latitude was fine and dandy; it was easily measured by the angle of the sun or pole star above the horizon, but longitude? Figuring the distance east and west? ‘Dead Reckoning’ – plotting where the ship was on a chart from its speed and the direction it was heading – was once a popular method, but since the late 1400s the effort of coming up with something better had the finest international minds (including Amerigo Vespucci, Captain Cook and Galileo) chewing the ends of their pencils. For the British government, the unpleasant fate of Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell and his 2,000 sailors just of the Isles of Scilly in 1707 was the final nail in the watery coffin. (You can read about it in my trip to the Isles of Scilly). And so in July 1714 the government decided to throw money at the problem: £20,000 in fact, which would equal about £2.5 million today. A competition dressed up as an Act, it was a rallying call to mathematicians, mariners and scientists to get the whole east-to-west thing sorted once and for all. As the Act said: “The Discovery of the Longitude is of such Consequence to Great Britain for the safety of the Navy and Merchant Ships as well as for the improvement of Trade that for want thereof many Ships have been retarded in their voyages, and many lost…” The quest was the hottest ticket in town, though satirized by many contemporary critics as a fool’s errand. A panel of Commissioners was put together to assess proposals, and a leading witness was Sir Isaac Newton. Five different systems looked as though they could be potential solutions: Timekeepers, Lunar Distances, Magnetism, Signalling and Jupiter’s Moons. With the ease of 2014’s hindsight, it’s tempting to snigger, ‘Jupiter’s Moons? You’re having a laugh,’ but each system was taken seriously and had its accuracy over 30 miles put to the test after a six week voyage to the West Indies. I suppose it’s not unlike The Apprentice of the C18th, only in this case the ‘apprentices’ actually knew what they were doing, and there was no Alan Sugar berating them from behind his desk in an glass-walled room apparently modelled on the ensuite toilet of a hotel bedroom.the contenders One of the main contenders was an estate worker from Lincolnshire called John Harrison, who had little formal education but was remarkably handy with clocks and machinery. His first submission to the competition was a chronometer, which he entered in 1735. By 1759 he had refined his machine down to the form of a pocket watch, which was tested on the HMS Deptford’s voyage from Portsmouth to Jamaica. Harrison’s son William carried it – in his pocket presumably, so no pressure on that trip, Will! – and on arrival it was found to be less than two minutes, or 18 miles, out. Success! Everything looked rosy until those in charge decided that he wasn’t quite the sort of chap they wanted to award the prize to. Harrison fought his corner for years. William was dispatched to Barbados on another trial in 1764 and this time the chronometer was accurate to within ten miles. Reluctantly, the competition panel agreed to give him some of the money on the condition he spilled the beans about how his invention worked. A copy known as ‘H4’ was made and taken on a jaunt by Captain Cook. He returned triumphant, clutching it in one hand and the first accurate charts of the South Sea Islands in the other. Despite this additional success for Harrison, it took a direct appeal to King George III before the committee would award him what he was owed. Yet even then, it wasn’t the full amount, and was handed over with ill-grace. During the decades the quest rumbled on, Harrison saw some serious competition from a curate and astronomer called Nevil Maskelyne, who came up with the Lunar Distance Method, which is all about measuring the distance between the moon and another body. Everyone goobserving suitt that? Good, because I’m already astronomically out of my depth. Maskelyne too was sent to Barbados (I picture him and William sweating in their powdered wigs, glowering at each other from the shade of opposing palm trees.) Harrison’s machine was more accurate, but Maskelyne’s system was cheaper. Maskelyne was appointed the Astronomer Royal in 1765, which meant he was one of the assessors of the prize as well as an entrant. Hmmm. One of his main jobs at the Royal Observatory (also in Greenwich) was making observations at night, and to ward off the cold he designed an ‘observing suit’, complete with padded feet like a baby’s sleep suit, to wear under his overcoat (that’s the top half of it in the photo). It’s on display in the National Maritime Museum and, as the information panel so delicately phrases it, ‘seems to have been well used.’ Pretty exciting thought isn’t it: this garment may be first known appearance of the Onesie.feet of suit Three hundred years ago, the problem of longitude was the greatest scientific puzzle in the world. It wasn’t just the British government who were trying to solve it either: at around the same time, competitions ran in Spain (our old mucker Philip II), France and the Netherlands. How to solve an equivalent problem in 2014 is the question posed by the Longitude Prize, which opens for submissions today. In an earlier part of the competition, a public vote decided that the rise in our communal resistance to antibiotics was the most important problem. Other contenders for this ‘best problem’ title were: paralysis, dementia, food, water and flight (the latter isn’t ‘why we can’t grow wings ourselves?’ you understand, but rather,’ how can we continue to trundle around the globe on planes without further harming the environment?’). The World Health Organisation estimates that on average antibiotics add 20 years to our lives, yet the rise of antimicrobial resistance is threatening to make them useless. The challenge of the Longitude Prize is to create a cheap, accurate, rapid and easy-to-use test kit for bacterial infections. It has a £10 million prize fund and it’s open to everyone, so if you’ve got a suggestion, drop them a line. I wonder what Alan Sugar’s current crop of apprentices would make of such a challenge? On the episode broadcast on BBC1 on Wednesday November 12th, the charming half-Irish project manager Pamela Uddin ended up in the firing line when her team’s ‘Relationship Guru’ boardgame failed to pass muster. Earlier in the process she described her commitment to the towering pile of dung her team were (inevitably, to my mind) bound to produce as, ‘I’m really passionate about whatever we come up with.’ John Harrison was a genius who spent four decades perfecting his chronometer. Harrison_H4_chronometerAnd yet, to paraphrase the voiceover at the end of every episode of The Apprentice, as of today, November 18th 2014, ‘the quest for longitude continues.’

The General Synopsis At Midnight is my exploration of the sea areas of the BBC R4 Shipping Forecast, thanks to the Maeve Binchy Travel Award. The earlier post ‘Counting Down To Midnight’ explains the project. A piece based on the project called ‘The Shipping Forecast’ was broadcast on Sunday Miscellany, RTE Radio 1, November 2nd.

Want to sea more?

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel, published by Harper. sepia greenwich

Finding Longitude: How Ships, Clocks and Stars helped solve the Longitude Problem by the National Maritime Museum and Richard Dunn, published by Collins. ‘The Quest for Longitude’ exhibition runs to January 4th 2015.

The General Synopsis At Midnight

Lost at sea: areas Hebrides, Malin, Trafalgar, Biscay… and the Baileys

Lusitania posterThe ocean floor is a surprisingly busy place. Teeming, you might say, with lost life. The UN reckons three million shipwrecks are scattered around the bottom of the world’s seas. Small yachts and fishing smacks, Viking longboats and German U-boats… the sea now owns the lot, regardless of what governments or salvage operators might think. The Irish sea area claim to fame is that there are said to be more ocean liners and U-boats sunk off Malin (on the Inishownen peninsula, Malin Head is the most northerly point of Ireland) than anywhere else in the world; the majority of them casualties of the World Wars.

When I went to the Isles of Scilly Museum – a place founded in 1963 because of a need to house all the finds deposited on the beach by winter seastorms – I was surprised by the contents of a display of bits and bobs washed up from the 1997 wreck of the Cita: tyres, Luck of the Irish keyrings, Dunnes Stores ‘St. Bernard’ brand shoes. It must be years since Dunnes decided that the luck of the Irish had run out as far as St Bernie was concerned and put him out to pasture. I always thought a C12th French century monk best known for his persuasive way with words was an unusual choice for a shop’s own-brand merchandise. (There were a few obligatory miracles of course, such as ridding churches of flies, and curing a child’s withered arm, but Saint-wise he wasn’t one of the biggies as far as I can see. Maybe Dunnes were referring to the dog?) Anyway, back to shipwrecks. On that trip, my flight back to Exeter from St Mary was delayed and to kill some time I flicked through a copy of the Wreck of Colossus – The Find of a Lifetime, which I found lying around in the café in St. Mary’s tiny aerodrome (okay, technically it was for sale, alongside handcrafted doilies and flower-illustration postcards, but I handled it gently).

Todd Stevens went to Scilly as a Cita salvage diver originally and ended up staying. Diving alone one day, he found a previously unknown additional site of the HMS Colossos, the 74-gun warship that sank in 1798. The ship was famously jam packed with a collection of Etruscan pottery belonging to Sir William Hamilton and – less famously – full of wounded soldiers on their way home from the Battle of the Nile. With his wife Carmen, Todd Stevens continued to explore this new area. Lying face upwards on the sand she found the most incredible thing: a twice life-size carved wooden figure that was once was part of the Colossos’ stern decoration (that’s it on the right). What struck me most about Todd Stevens’ book – and I didn’t get to read it all because a) I was out of sterling and b) my flight was called – was how honest he was about the thrill of the chase in salvage diving, and the frustration of having to leave a possible site behind and return to land. He makes it sound so addictive, the belief that just there, over there, under that rock, behind that reef, a moment of history lies trapped. A giant-sized, barnacle-encrusted ‘what if’. tresco-oscar-colossus-figurehead-2

But when something wonderful, such as the carving from the Colossos, is found, what happens then? So often it is conditions of the sea itself that can preserve wrecks and their booty. Removing them from these crypts sends time spinning forward. Shipwreck sites are nearly always graves as well as treasure chests. Understandably, the focus on the human cost of a shipwreck gets more prominence the more recent the disaster. Whizz back in time and the people tend to get forgotten about. We will never know who were the crew of fifteen on the 3,000 year old paddle-powered boat discovered in sea area Plymouth in 2009. Its cargo of copper and tin ingots, a bronze sword and three gold torcs are seen as evidence that there was a much more sophisticated European communications and trading system in operation than was preciously believed. Engineer Jim Tyson who took part in the dives said: ‘You have something in your hands that had not seen the light of day in 3000 years. The last person to do so must have died in the shipwreck.’ A thoughtful comment to make, considering that the temptation must be to jump up and down in delight with joy at finding a haul dating back to 900BC.

Underneath the invisible lines that create the jigsaw that is the Shipping Forecast, all the sea areas have their own shipwreck secrets and stories. One of the quirkier ones is that of the SS Politician, which was fictionalised as the SS Cabinet Minister in the in the novel Whisky Galore! by Compton MacKenzie. An 8,000-tonne cargo ship, the SS Politican left Liverpool on 3rd February 1941, heading for Jamaica and New Orleans. Two days later she ran aground of the northern coast of Eriskey in the Outer Hebrides during a gale. The crew all survived and spilled the beans about the ship’s cargo to the locals. A clue as to said cargo is in the title of the book. Yip, malt whisky. And galore. 264000 bottles of the stuff in fact. Thanks to wartime rationing the island’s own supplies of whisky were long gone, so who could blame them for deciding to help themselves before the seals got the lot? It wasn’t stealing, according to the enterprising fishermen who dressed as women so as not to be caught with telltale oil stains from the ship’s hold on their clothes. Nope, all was fine and dandy, according to the rules of salvage. Problem was, the local customs and excise officer thought otherwise: Charles McColl insisted the police take action, with the result that a number of islanders were convicted. Their sentences ranged from a £3 fine to six weeks imprisonment. The Politican proved resistant to official salvage attempts and – this being wartime, you can imagine how distracted the bods in charge were – it was decided to simply leave the stricken ship where she was. McColl estimated that 24,000 bottles had been stolen already and that simply abandoning the ship to its fate would prove too much temptation, so he got permission to explode her hull. Now that must have been some sight for the recently drunk, also recently hungover but now sadly newly sober, islanders to witness. Whisky Galore was released as an Ealing comedy in 1949. I wonder if Charles McColl ever saw the movie?whisky-galore-poster-1-1024x770

In the same month the SS Politican brought such brief, unintended happiness to the Hebrides, the SS Gairsoppa took a direct hit from a German U-boat’s torpedo. It sank in less than 20 minutes at 50 degrees N, 14 west, close to where sea areas Shannon and Sole meet. Only three of the crew managed to escape in a lifeboat. They reached Cornwall two weeks later, where two of them died trying to get ashore. Last year, 2,792 silver ingots worth €27m were recovered from the site three miles (!) below the surface. Despite this massive haul, the SS Gairsoppa is relatively small beans compared with Ireland’s other shipwreck connections. Our biggest claim to shipwreck fame is generally taken to be the Belfast-born Titanic, which sank on its maiden voyage in 1912. However, fascinating as its story of hubris is, I’ll see your Titanic and raise you the Spanish Armada.

263px-Routes_of_the_Spanish_ArmadaThe route followed by the Spanish Armada – both intentionally and not – by this fleet begins in Sea Areas Trafalgar and Biscay. In fact, it covers most of our Shipping Forecast map, not that even the word ‘forecast’ would have made any sense at the time, this being centuries before Sir Robert Fitzroy.

In September 1588 Philip II decided he’d take a pop at invading England, and sent a fleet of 130 ships carrying almost 30,000 men with that express purpose. It didn’t go well, this tale of old against new: the heavy galleons of the Spanish were more like floating castles than ships, versus the newer Elizabethan ‘race ships’ that were low and fast, with much lighter armoury. The beautifully named Battle of Gravelines sent his fleet, well, fleeing. As the remaining ships tried to scarper, a combination of bad weather and poor navigation drove them towards the west coast of Ireland. Queen Elizabeth was concerned about a possible Irish/Spanish alliance against her and so her man on the ground Sir Richard Bingham (a tough cookie, as pirate queen Granuaile was soon to discover, and you can read about here) and the Lord Deputy William Fitzwilliam issued orders: “to make inquiry by all good means, both by oath and otherwise, to take all the hulls of ships, stores, treasures, etc. into your hands and to apprehend and execute all Spaniards found there of what quality so ever. Torture may be used in prosecuting this inquiry.” Ouch. 24 Spanish ships were wrecked off the Irish coastline, and it is estimated that 5,000 men died. In the centuries since, 10,000 pieces of treasure, from forks to cannonballs and rubies to coins, that once journeyed through what we know as Trafalgar and Biscay, have washed up on Irish shores.

And finally: to Bailey. Not the sea area this time, but a person. Two in fact. Maurice and Maralyn Bailey decided to move to New Zealand and so in June 1972 they set sail from Southampton on their 31-foot yacht, the Auralyn. Everything was going fine and dandy until, off the coast of Guatemala, a whale got up close and personal, with the result that – well, you can imagine the result. They roped their dingy and life-raft together and grabbed what supplies they could. From the dingy they watched their yacht disappear. In a diary entry dated March 4 1973 (but written after the event), non-swimmer Maralyn Bailey wrote of “a violent impact. The ship shuddered and there was tearing, splintering wood. We looked at each other. I dashed outside. As I went into the cockpit, I saw, off the stern, a huge whale. Around him the deep blue water was stained red“. If they had been told on that morning that they would still be on that small raft 117 days later, I wonder would they have stayed put or jumped in after the Auralyn? When their supplies ran out they survived on rainwater and by catching turtles, birds and even small sharks with their bare hands and a safety pin. Seven times other boats were nearby and failed to spot them as they drifted in the Pacific becoming increasingly malnourished and weak. 1,500 miles later the Baileys were spotted by a Korean fishing boat, the Weolmi 306. They had each lost 40 pounds in weight and could barely stand. The water had rotted their clothes and their bodies were covered in sores. In their 1974 book 117 Days Adrift (published as Staying Alive! in the US; please note the jaunty exclamation mark.) they wrote that to keep their spirits up they played dominoes and cards made out of pages ripped from a notebook; and drew up elaborate plans for celebratory feasts.

A year later the Baileys were back at sea in the Auralyn II.SS Hop - Unst

I came across this plaque dedicated to the crew of the SS Hop in a graveyard on Unst in the Shetlands in sea area Fair Isle. You can read about that trip here.

Oh, and if you think the Titanic was spectacularly ill-fated, then spare a thought for the Vasa, a Swedish warship that too sank on its maiden voyage. To be fair to the Titanic, she did get a fair bit into the journey before that iceberg got in the way. In 1628, the Vasa managed only to get 1,300 metres away from dock before foundering. In the 1950s the Swedes dug the ship out of what had become a busy shipping lane on the outskirts of Stockholm’s harbour. The custom-built Vasa Museum is a hugely popular tourist attraction, and the ship has become a symbol of what is known as Sweden’s ‘great power period’. (Not, you note, of a great shipbuilding period.)

The General Synopsis At Midnight is my exploration of the sea areas of the BBC R4 Shipping Forecast, thanks to the Maeve Binchy Travel Award. The earlier post ‘Counting Down To Midnight’ explains the project. A piece based on the project called ‘The Shipping Forecast’ broadcast on Sunday Miscellany, RTE Radio 1, November 2nd

Want to sea more?

Warships, U-Boats and Liners: A guide to shipwrecks mapped in Irish waters by Charise McKeon, Karl Brady, James Lyttleton and Ian Lawler. Published by The Stationery Office, Dublin (2012).

117 Days Adrift by Maurice and Maralyn Bailey published by A&C Black.

There are plenty of Irish resources about the Spanish Armada, such as and

And thank’ee Wikipedia for the Spanish Armada map.


The General Synopsis At Midnight

Sea areas Shannon, Fastnet, Lundy, Plymouth, Portland, Wight, Dover and Thames: when Grace met Elizabeth

geograph-3754514-by-Joseph-MischyshynOn the odd occasions I’m in London I always try to fit in a quick hang-around by the banks of the Thames (I’m not even that fussy about which bit). It’s because being anywhere near the Thames estuary always makes me think of Granuaile and the journey she made in 1593 from Clew Bay to Greenwich to seek an audience with Queen Elizabeth I. I suppose the actual voyage itself wouldn’t have been particularly taxing for her: you don’t get to be known as the Pirate Queen of Ireland without being a very able sailor, and Grace O’Malley’s legendary life of pillaging and plundering had taken her much further afield than from the west of Ireland around the south, up the east coast of Britain and down the estuary where the Thames meets the North Sea. But this was no ordinary voyage. This wasn’t business, this was personal.

Continuing the work begun by her dear old dad Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth’s ever-increasing conquest of Ireland had been encroaching on Grace O’Malley’s power (Granuaile came from a nickname ‘Grainne mhaol’, bald Grace, because it was said she cut off her hair as a child as it would get in the way of the ropes on her father’s ship). Cracks had formed in the once-strong Irish clan system, and it was piecemeal and prone to internal feuding. In Elizabeth’s eyes this made her dangerously open to attack from her enemies on the continent. Frustrated and impatient with what he saw as Granuaile’s dismissive and insubordinate attitude, the English governor of Connacht, Sir Richard Bingham murdered Granuaile’s eldest son and seized another of her sons as well as her half-brother, Donal-na-Piopa. He confiscated her cattle and horses and installed his own soldiers in her home, Rockfleet Castle on Clew Bay (pictured). You can understand why Granuaile was hopping mad and decided to sail to England to petition Elizabeth I for their release. But as a known leader who could quickly command hundreds of loyal followers should she choose to do so, the decision to travel to the Queen’s court was a dangerous one. Bingham and his cronies were out for her blood too, not just that of her family. Of course not only was this before the shipping forecast but it was long, long before sea areas and what we would recognise as navigational aids. This was a time when pirates were routinely hung inside iron cages along the banks of the Thames, their rotting bodies left to the mercy of the seagulls. (A forecast of a sort, I suppose, as was this signature of Elizabeth on the death warrant of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587. Elizabeth’s seal is below her signature.) elizabethrsignature

It is remarkable that two of the most powerful people in that patriarchial and sexist society were women. Unfortunately, it would still be remarkable now. Elizabeth I famously sent Granuaile a list of 18 questions about her life, her work (you can be sure the term ‘piracy’ wasn’t used by either of them), and the laws of Irish society. According to Elizabeth’s advisor, Granuaile had ’overstepped the role of womanhood’, which seems to me to be a dangerous criticism to make in the company of such a trail-blazing Queen of England. However, Elizabeth must have decided to let that one pass, and despite her advisors’ fury, the Queen agreed to grant her visitor an audience. Anne Chambers refers to the encounter in her book Granuaile, as ‘When The Sea Queen Met The Virgin Queen’.

They met in the summer of 1593 at Elizabeth’s palace at Greenwich. (Greenwich is also where the first Board of Longitude was set up in 1714, primarily as a result of the watery fate of Sir Cloudesley Shovell and his crew, which I wrote about in this post about sea areas Sole, Lundy and Fastnet.) Granuaile’s journey to the court at Greenwich must have been so different from all others she had previously undertaken because it was about saving a life; about giving not taking. The circumstances of their meeting and what happened during it inspired my short story The Dead Of Winter which was published in the Irish Independent on May 31st in the Hennessy New Irish Writing competition. Co-incidentally that was the same day I was first on the Marian Finucane radio show to talk about the Maeve Binchy Travel Award, which seems like an particularly appropriate connection between these sea areas of the Shipping Forecast and The General Synopsis At Midnight. The following is my version of what happened when Grace met Elizabeth…


The Dead Of Winter

Typical, just typical. I’ve trudged five cold, rain-sodden miles out from Newport to visit Grace O’Malley’sCarrickahowley_(Rockfleet)_Castle_County_Mayo castle only there’s nothing to see. Not even a sign – unless you count the tatty Office of Public Works: Keep Out notice swinging from the broken railings, which I don’t. What was I expecting to find, I wonder? A boom-time Interpretative Centre? Jaunty, pirate-themed cafe? I jam my hands harder into the pockets of my fleece. Even a leaflet would have been nice. Rockfleet Castle sits at the edge of the water, squat and square and solid. It must be black as soot on the inside. Now that I’m closer (that gap in the railings somewhat undermining the creaking authority of the Keep Out notice) I can see that the castle is the edge of the water: its walls climb from the sea, a gift thrown to the land.

I have taken myself away from my life for three days.’That’s all I want,’ I told my husband, ‘three days away.’

‘A mini-break?’ he said. ‘There’s great deals, hotels are on their knees this time of year. But I’m too busy to take time off.’ He was sitting on the end of our bed, clipping his toenails. ‘Maybe… ‘ he said, ‘if Mam took Cuan, and Jack went to your sister? I’ll think about it.’ Each slim sliver he placed neatly on the floor, and when he was finished he gathered them into a pile. A tiny white shoal dropped into the bin under his night table. For me to fish out, I supposed.

‘By myself,’ I said.

‘You want a mini-break by yourself?’ He looked puzzled. I realised he could imagine only the holiday we would take together. Us, sipping Guinness in country pubs; us frittering away a day in deciding where to have dinner. He thought I wanted the holiday I would have with him, only without him.

‘I want to be alone. For three days. That’s all. I won’t get through the winter otherwise.’

‘But what about the boys?’ he said, in bed now, the glow of the iPad ghoulish on his face. He thinks I make too much of it. Of her. That it – she – consumes me. That I alone tighten the iron band around my heart. I know he thinks it, and he knows I know.

Water laps the sides of the castle, licking the stone.

‘You alright there?’

‘Jesus!’ I jump, whirl around, ‘You scared me half to death!’

‘Sorry.’ The man is wearing an oil slicker and black bobble hat. He steps back and holds up his hands as though I am cranky dog, liable to nip. He looks older than me, though that could be the beard. He points down a half-hidden slope that leads to a small jetty. The prow of a boat bobs in and out of sight. ‘You were getting fierce close to the edge.’

‘I was looking for a door.’

‘It’s around the far side, but the castle’s shut up for the winter. You’ve no fear of ghosts then? It’s haunted by Grace O’Malley herself.’

‘Yeah,’ I say, ‘Sure.’

He nods and I can’t tell whether he didn’t get that I was being sarcastic, or just didn’t care.

‘She died here, but her head was buried out on Clare Island and her body is said to set sail from here every night in search of it.’

‘There’s no such thing as ghosts.’

‘There’d be no such thing as ghost stories, so,’ he shrugs. ‘I’ll take you out in the boat, if you want? I’m done fishing, there’s feck all out there today but it’s light enough for a half hour.’

‘You’re a fisherman?’ I say stupidly. I’ve never met a fisherman before, which now strikes me as odd, considering how much fish I eat.

‘Yeah,’ he says, ‘But in the summer I do better from the tourists. Two hour tour, 20 euro a head. Seals, mussel farms, Louis Walsh’s summer house, the lot.’ When he nods the bobble on his hat jigs up and down. ‘They can’t get enough of Louis Walsh.’

I imagine my husband’s look of horror if he could see me now: alone in the dusk in a dead-end with this stranger, this sea-faring giant. My jeans are stiff from the rain and it’s awkward to climb down the metal ladder to the boat so I take off my thick gloves. I gasp when my hands touch the freezing iron and he – Murrough, his name is – grabs my elbow. Once again I picture my husband’s face (waves of horror, a distinct undertow of reproach) and all of a sudden I’m conscious of the scared thump in my heart and about to exclaim, no! do you know what? I think I’ll leave it for today after all, when he jumps back saying, ‘It’s them last few rungs are the tricky ones, people jump thinking they’re in, only they’re not.’

We chug out into Clew Bay, the engine announcing us to the darkening sea. I guess I can always fling myself overboard if I have to, though the water looks so unforgiving I decide I will take my chances on board. I feel an unexpected pang for the Seaview Hotel, for my small room with its commanding view of the leisure centre’s external ventilation system. Guilt had caused me to book cheaply and unwisely, and thanks to its Winter Warmer Offer – three nights for the price of two, breakfast and dinner thrown in – the hotel is humming with guests. My fellow bargain hunters are either much older than me and enjoying mid-week leisure time, or families with pre-schoolers.

‘I took the early retirement package,’ a man had confided to me in the lift, his pinkish cheeks and juniper breath telling a story of golf, of gin and tonics at the nineteenth. ‘And we’ve not looked back since.’

I am that holiday oddity; a woman alone. In the restaurant I’ve noticed older women looking curiously at me. The mothers of small children regard me with something more like envy: I know they are picturing my long hours of unbroken sleep in clean sheets, and my not driving around aimlessly for an hour every lunchtime because the toddler refuses to nap in the twenty-euro-per-night-surcharge travel cot.

I have spent the last two days rambling up and down The Greenway trail before coming back to the hotel for a late swim when the pool is quiet. I have kept myself busy and alone. That way I can think about Poppy, can let her fill my thoughts entirely, and still play fair – more than fair; play kind – with the present. When I phoned home Cuan and Jack were chatty and said they missed me. My husband sounded tense and bemused and only when I hung up did I realise why: he hadn’t actually believed I’d go.

‘Who owns that house there?’ I point at the long low lines of grey stone; a ghostly shape flittering through a bank of winter trees.

‘Yer man who used be the American Ambassador. Funny enough, no-one gives a feck to see his house.’ The boat motors along for another minute and then, ‘Once upon a time,’ Murrough says.

‘What?’ This must be his patter for tourists. ‘A fairy story?’

‘A true story.’

‘Then you shouldn’t have once upon a time. If your story is true, it’s a legend and they can’t start with once upon a time.’ I am aware of how daft, how childishly pedantic, I sound.

‘It’s my story,’ he doesn’t look at me, ‘I can have it whatever way I want.’

I turn my head to the sea because my eyes have filled with tears.

‘Once upon a time,’ he says, then laughs, ‘Fair enough. In 1593, Grace O’Malley, pirate queen of Ireland, set sail for London from the very same harbour as ourselves. Her youngest son Tibóid – her favourite for reason of being born at sea – had been taken prisoner by the English and charged with treason, which carried a sentence of death.’

He pauses. I edge closer to the wheelhouse.

‘She sailed her ship the Malendroke as if her own life depended on it and when she got to the Thames Estuary word was sent to Queen Elizabeth. Pirate corpses hung along the Estuary, so she’d have known her fate if she didn’t play her cards right. Elizabeth sent her a list of eighteen questions, but when she received Granuaile’s answers she left her waiting six weeks before agreeing to see her.’ His voice is bigger than the story needs, I suppose he’s used to a chattering, camera-flashing audience. ‘It felt like a lifetime to Granuaile, but it was a good omen; she’d been warned she might be still waiting at Christmas.’

Christmas. Poppy died on December twenty-second, three years ago.

‘She had meningitis,’ I’ve heard my husband tell people, but to me meningitis had her. It consumed her, destroyed her. And now, when summer is over and the boys go back to school, I feel the draw into winter as a tug to that date.

I close my eyes and let four hundred years fall away. Two women living men’s lives face each other. A Queen trussed up in a farthingale, face harshly painted, rotting teeth shored up with pieces of stale bread. Bright and garish, she is a flightless tropical bird. Grace O’Malley has hair woven from waterweeds and loose, homespun clothes. Her face is raw from a life at sea. They are the two most powerful women of their age and the only time they will ever meet is for one to beg the other for a life.

The boat lurches and seawater slops over my jeans. Spray touches my eyelids and they shoot open. Through the wet light of the wheelhouse his yellow oil slicker gleams like gold.

‘-and so,’ he is saying and I realise I must have missed a bit, ‘Granuaile’s words worked. Elizabeth released her son and let her ply her trade in peace in these waters. The Queen was so impressed she had her lads draw a map of Ireland with Granuaile included as a chieftain of Mayo. She was the only woman ever to be named a chieftain.’ He pauses and raises his eyebrows till they disappear under his hat. ‘And,’ he adds with a grin, ‘they all lived happily ever after.’

‘How do you know so much about her?’

‘My own people are descended – I don’t know how many greats back – from her grand-nephew, he was another Tibóid.’ He turns the wheel in a wide arc. ‘Let’s head in now, maybe we’ll get a seal or two to perform for us on the way.’

We head back for the harbour and Newport and the road to Dublin and my life of the last three years and the years before that and the years yet to come. I can’t see it, but I know Croagh Patrick rises, tall and broad and severe, from the mists on the land to one side. I turn my back to it and look at Rockfleet looming ahead, the moon turning its grey stone to silver. The castle was owned by Granuaile’s second husband, Murrough says, but under Brehon Law she divorced him by calling Richard Burke, I dismiss you, from a window and lo! it became hers. ”Twas easier done in them days,’ he grins.

I picture her on the turret, red hair fizzing and gossamer-thin nets spinning from her fingers as far as her eye could see and her heart could want.

He tucks his boat into the crook of the harbour and we clunk up the ladder. My lungs are full of sea-cold air, my throat scratchy with salt. I offer him twenty euro. ‘Ah, you’re grand,’ he gently pushes my hand away, ‘You didn’t see much after all.’

And from up ahead I hear the wind grab the loose Keep Out notice and beat it, beat it hard against the railings.

the dead of winter image


Want to sea more?

Granuaile lives on, and I don’t mean through such things as the ill-fated musical The Pirate Queen. She is at sea still: the Commissioners of Irish Lights boat the ILV Granuaile is one of the most advanced vessels of its kind. (It’s also available to hire, should you and your wallet be inclined).  In 1997 I spent a day on board its predecessor, the Granuaile II, in the company of the CIL and an artist called Stefan Gec, who had a made a specially constructed, fully operational navigational buoy from steel cast from eight decommissioned Soviet submarines.

There is a Granuaile Visitor Centre in Louisburgh, Mayo. Contact for details.

There are no likenesses of Grace O’Malley in existence apart from that in the photograph used at the start of this post. The alabaster statue (photo by Joseph Mischyshynis a version of the bronze statue that is located outside along the road to Westport House near the north end of the bridge over the Carrowbeg River. Westport House was built in the C16th by – and is still owned by – descendants of Granuaile.

In chapter one of Finnegans Wake, James Joyce uses the story of Granuaile (‘her grace o’malice’) and her kidnapping of the grandson of the Earl of Howth. Apparently the Earl refused to receive her in his castle because he was having his dinner. Fair enough, some would say. Furious at such treatment, she kidnapped his grandson and returned him only when the Earl promised to lay an extra place at this dinner table for evermore.


The General Synopsis At Midnight is my exploration of the sea areas of the BBC R4 Shipping Forecast, thanks to the Maeve Binchy Travel Award. The earlier post ‘Counting Down To Midnight’ explains the project.

The General Synopsis At Midnight

Sea areas North Utsire, South Utsire, Viking, Fair Isle, Shannon, Southeast Iceland: Messages without bottles

I didn’t dip a toe into any sea area for The General Synopsis At Midnight this week, instead I experimented with time-travel.

Once upon a time, and not as long ago as you might think, Iceland simply didn’t exist. It was nothing more than the faintest wisp of a myth. Then, early in the ninth century an Irish (hurrah!) monk called Dicuil – now there’s a name you don’t hear shouted across many playgrounds – wrote about Irish pilgrim monks spending the summer on a remote land. And that’s the first recorded mention of the country. Not of the people, nor the volcanoes, nor the sea-bright air. The country. There were no people to construct unfathomable megalithic cairns. No-one to drop a darn-and-it-was-my-lucky-flint-too arrow-head. Over a thousand years before Dicuil took quill to parchment, a Greek explorer called Pytheas of Marseilles came up with the idea of land six days’ sail from the north of the British Isles. He called it Thule. Because it was the most northerly point anyone could imagine it became known as Ultima Thule. And even it wasn’t Iceland. (What Pytheas had come up with was most likely the Shetlands, or depending on how speedy a sailor his calculations were based on, possibly Norway).

Dicuil set the bar for travel writing high, partly because he described the country so evocatively, partly because he believed it actually existed. Of the permanent daylight in summer he wrote, ‘The setting sun hides itself at the evening hour as if behind a little hill, so that no darkness occurs during that brief period.’ Dicuil added that it was possible to pick the lice from your shirt as precisely at night as in daytime, thanks to the light. Clearly, here was a man who understood the vagaries of travel. (On Unst recently I was told this perpetual midsummer daylight is known by the lovely title ‘the Simmer Dim’).

Although they had yet to settle in Iceland, Vikings had been firing themselves at northern and central Europe for some years before Dicuil recorded the monks’ visit. The Viking age is generally considered to have started in 793AD, when they decided to have a crack at Lindisfarne, an island off the northeast coast of England. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – a thousand-year old series of manuscripts charting the history of the Anglo-Saxons, not a British local paper chock full of small ads, in case you’re wondering – recorded, ‘In this year fierce, foreboding omens came over the land of the Northumbrians, and the wretched people shook; there were excessive whirlwinds, lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. These signs were followed by great famine…’

I like to imagine a couple of young monks standing at the door to Lindisfarne while marauding Norsemen stream up from the water’s edge like crazed sea monsters. One monk sucks his teeth and says, ‘Here, there might have been something in those whirlwinds after all.’
Excessive whirlwinds,’ says his pal.
‘Yeah. There was all that lightning too.’
‘And the dragons.’
‘God, yes! I’d forgotten about them.’

Over a thousand years later and all the countries of the Shipping Forecast have grown close to each other without having moved. Should we choose to now, we can find out what each other is up to all the time. We know each other’s weather – in fact, we make it our business to. Everything is transparent. Which made the recent BBC report Why Icelanders are wary of elves living beneath the rocks even more intriguing. With the constant prospect of invasion in island countries, it is easy to understand ancient beliefs in spirits of land and water. Forces that could protect and warn, that could provide shelter but just as easily cause harm. Belief in land-spirits is thought to have become especially strong in Iceland primarily because of its isolation. Land-spirits – ‘Landvettir’ – were powerful, responsible for the welfare of the land. Modernity doesn’t seem to have entirely done away with these beliefs: in a survey in 1998, 54.4% of Icelanders said they believed in the existence of elves. Why Icelanders are wary of elves living beneath the rocks claimed that work on a new road linking the Alftanes peninsula to a suburb of Reykjavik called Gardabaer was halted when campaigners warned it would disturb an Elf Chapel and a protected area of untouched lava. A local woman who claimed she could talk to these Huldufolk (believed to be the same size as humans, but invisible to us) mediated. The road went ahead on the basis that the roads department would carefully move the Chapel – aka a dark and craggy, 12 foot high rock – elsewhere. A pro-elf protestor commented, “To have people through hundreds of years talking about the same things… It is part of the nation.”

In Norway – a land that resembles a crackle of frost on a winter window, where the landscape itself is brought to life in stories of giants – the tomte was a benign spirit who took care of a farmer’s house, but only for farmers who worked hard. On Shetland it was once commonly believed that the hills and the sea were full of mysterious creatures, some more harmless than others. Music-loving fairies called trows lived underground in heather-covered knowes and went about their work at night. Shetland’s fishermen had a special language for use at sea. It was a form of code, just as the Shipping Forecast is. They did not refer to ordinary objects by their usual names, because they thought that would invite danger onto the boat. John Spence wrote in his 1899 book Shetland Folklore, “The movements of witches were always made against the sun, and by whirling a wooden cap in water … they were supposed to be able to raise the wind like Furies, and toss the sea in wild commotion capable of destroying anything afloat.” People travelling at night near streams and marshy ground kept an eye out for ghostly horses called nyuggles (top image). Should an exhausted traveller not realise what they were dealing with and hitch a free ride, the nyuggle would bolt for the nearest water. It never ended well, as you can imagine. The water spirits in Norway skipped the horse bit entirely and were said to take the form of a devil, eager to lure people to a sure death by drowning.

The famine that supposedly preceded the Viking attack of Lindisfarne reminded me of a story told to me by my grandmother a few years before she died. In 1921 she was eighteen and moved from Mayo to Cork to train in animal husbandry at the Munster Institute. She then got a job as a poultry instructor with the Department of Agriculture. She was the first woman in the west of Ireland to buy a car, she said. Seventy years later she still had a photo of the two of them together, with her leaning proudly against the driver door. (She would have been horrified by my timidity on Shetland with my rented Mirage.)

Her route around the farms of the west of Ireland took in the Aran islands; Inis Mór, Inis Meáin and Inis Oírr. Leaving her little car behind her on the mainland, she would stay on the islands for two or three days at a time, sometimes more if a storm got up and the boat couldn’t sail back. The islands were beautiful and she always enjoyed walking for miles around them going from farm to farm, crossing the fields at whatever place she chose. At first the farmers told her that she had to follow the roads and paths but she wouldn’t, which would have been typical of her I suspect. She must have been confident that no-one would make trouble for an Instructor ‘over from the Department’. She liked the locals so she never really minded getting stuck for an extra day, even though some of the lodgings were rough. On one of her visits she’d stayed in Inis Mór’s only hotel – such as it styled itself – and had woken up to find a rat sharing the pillow with her.

One morning on Inis Mór – which older islanders often called by its former name, Inis Bant – she set off to walk to a farm some miles away. She was enjoying the walk because it was a lovely fresh morning and she was as good a walker as she was a driver. All of a sudden she began to get hungry. It was the weirdest thing, she said, but she got hungrier and hungrier until her head was spinning and her knees crumbled under her and couldn’t go any further. It was the most she could do to pull herself along by the ditch as the grass around her appeared to be going black in front of her eyes. She was about to die, she was sure of it. And she was sickened that she’d never see her lovely car again, and worried would her mother know where to find her other prized possession, a gold medal King George had presented to her the year before, at the 1925 Royal Agricultural Show. Just as she realised she wouldn’t be able to crawl another inch, she heard a shout and from nowhere, a man grabbed her arm and dragged her over the ditch and onto the road. He pulled a piece of bread from his pocket and as soon as the bread went into her mouth she was immediately better, not hungry or thirsty at all. ‘Are you a mad woman?’ he said and before she could answer he turned and strode off. She was to be back on the island many times after that day but she never saw him again.

She had strayed onto Hungry Grass, she believed: famine grass, where a starving person had died. Planted by fairies, according to some. Nearly seventy years later, she ended her story with the advice, ‘always keep something small to eat in your pocket,’ and with a last, decisive click of her dentures, added, ‘hungry grass can trick a person, because it looks the same as any other.’

viking longhouseStories are messages without bottles. Travel changes them, just as it does people. The Icelandic word saga is a cousin by marriage of the Old Norse segja, ‘to say’, which makes me wonder what a folklore map that covers the same territory as the Shipping Forecast would look like. Would there be any definite lines, any careful delineations? Wouldn’t those areas that don’t touch any land be entirely redundant, mere passageways from one harbour to another? I picture folklore and fairy tales moving invisibly through the air just as seeds are carried inside birds. Words hewn in Viking longhouses (the photo is of a reconstructed one on Unst), cast adrift in Norway and washing ashore in Scotland and Iceland and Ireland.

Unst, next stop NorwayStories were stowaways on Viking ships. Myths were breathed between monks patiently guiding their lonely rowboats to unknown lands. Huldufolk, trowes, tomte, the Little People… these are grafted from one tradition to another. Our lives are tales told in the cries of cormorants. Our fears cross dark seas, whispered by the waves.

The General Synopsis At Midnight is my exploration of the sea areas of the BBC R4 Shipping Forecast, thanks to the Maeve Binchy Travel Award. The earlier post ‘Counting Down To Midnight’ explains the project.

The Nyuggle was photographed from a line drawing used in a display board at The Shetland Museum and Archives in Lerwick. It’s a fantastic museum and worth exploring online if you can’t get there in person.

Want to sea more?

Why Icelanders are wary of elves living beneath the rocks:

Old Norse-Icelandic Literature, a short introduction by Heather O’Donoghue. Blackwell Publishing 2004.

A big thank-you to Eilis Ni Dhuibhne for introducing me to the mystery and beauty of the folklore tradition.

The General Synopsis At Midnight

Sea area Fastnet: The wreck of the Sirius, or ‘hey, let’s move the lighthouse!’

IMG_3138The General Synopsis At Midnight heads for East Cork and Waterford, where sea areas Fastnet, Lundy and Irish Sea all get a look-in.

‘I’d a hen party out here last Monday,’ the tour guide says. We’re walking up the hill from the small jetty at Ballycotton Island to the lighthouse. Between the matt black – this lighthouse is one of only two in Ireland painted black – and the red glow from the lamps at the top, it looms ahead like an overgrown Tardis. I’m half expecting the Doctor Who of my childhood, all curly hair and long scarf, to appear around the bend, accompanied by a pulsating woo-hoo-woo soundtrack. We pause half way up at what she tells us is called the ‘elbow’. The lighthouse keepers would stop here for a breather while lugging their provisions from the boat to the top. (The keepers had hens, goats and a flourishing kitchen garden, presumably in an attempt to keep the hauling uphill to a minimum.) But there wouldn’t be a lighthouse at Ballycotton – black or otherwise – if it wasn’t for the ill-fated paddle-steamship Sirius. Work on a new lighthouse on nearby Capel Head was already well underway when the Sirius struck Smith’s Rock south west of Ballycotton early one foggy Saturday morning in January 1847. In April 1838 it had found fame as the first vessel to cross the Atlantic Ocean completely under steam, but the treacherous underwater rocks of East Cork and terrible weather conditions meant the end for the Sirius (not to mention 19 of those on board). The London Daily News a few days later reported, ‘…amidst the confusion and alarm that prevailed the life-boat which is usually carried over the paddle-box was attached to the davits and lowered though unfortunately on the wrong side of the ship … melancholy to relate, she was swamped and all in her met a watery grave save Captain Cameron of the Prince river steamer who was a passenger from Dublin in the vessel.’ As a result, it was decided to build the lighthouse on the nine-acre site of Ballycotton Island instead. It commenced operation in 1851 and was permanently staffed by keepers until it was converted to automatic in 1992 and placed in the care of an attendant. Gulls and goats have had their run of the place for years, but thanks to an active local campaign and the support of the Commissioners for Irish Lights, they are once more forced to share it with the newly-launched Ballycotton Island Lighthouse Tours. Two small cottages sit to one side of the lighthouse. One was once used for accommodation until in the 1970s a new building took over this function. An unfortunately ugly lump of a thing, locals call it the Ballycotton Hilton (see image below). ‘It looks like my primary school,’ a man remarks. The closer I get to the lighthouse itself, the more benign the black and red colour palette becomes, and once through the door it is nothing other than beautiful. From the 1.5m thick sandstone walls to the stairs made from granite slabs, our little tour group clusters inside the door to marvel at the labour that created this example of Victorian precision and dedication. Above us, an oak handrail curls upwards and the dark twists of the ceiling are that of a fossilized shell (see image to the right, below). It’s a hot day and outside at the foot of the lighthouse the air was still and unmoving. It hung heavy, smelling of calm seas and dry grass. Yet several floors up on the observation deck a breeze whips crossly around us. interior the hiltonOn this brightly blue afternoon it’s hard to believe any other weather can exist, yet there must have been many, many days and nights when the hearths and homes of the mainland seemed impossibly far away to the keepers. Today even the clouds are the sort painted by a 17th century Dutch Master with a spare bottle of titanium white and time on his hands. The head of an occasional seal breaks the waves and bobs around before dropping under the water once more. The wildlife regard us human visitors with disinterest. (‘That rock is moving!’ a woman exclaims. ‘It’s a goat!’ a little girl tells her.) When our time is up, we stroll back down the hill to the jetty so that our tour can swap over with the next one. The incoming guide recognises a woman in my group. ‘What are you doing on my island?’ she asks as they hug. The boat leaves the island and chugs back to the harbour. The skipper is a man whose father’s boat brought the provisions out to the keepers. His father before him was on the RNLB Mary Standford, famous for the Daunt Lightship Rescue in 1936. Its crew won well-deserved medals for gallantry, as did the boat itself (a gold one, no less). We are still talking about the hen party. There were nine of them took the tour, the guide tells us. Every one of them local, they’d all been looking at the lighthouse their whole lives. ‘Still though, a hen party?’ a woman repeats, incredulous, before deciding,‘it must have been a very sophisticated hen party, so.’ to the lighthouse

Want to sea more? The Commissioners for Irish Lights: The Ballycotton Lighthouse: A great read is the memoir ‘The Lightkeeper’ by Gerald Butler, published by Liffey Press. And a footnote involving sea areas Irish Sea and Fastnet: This wreck is to be found 40k from the Ballycotton Lighthouse, in Co. Waterford. It’s the wreck of the crane barge Samson, which came a cropper on a journey from Liverpool to Malta in December 1987 in a fierce south-easterly gale. Its tow-line broke off the Welsh coast and it ran aground at Rams Head, Ardmore. Apparently a man called Jim Rooney managed to climb onto the crane and lived there for 40 days in order to claim salvage. Samson reminds me of the skeleton of an extinct bird. A doomed, flightless creature: something I’d stare at in a museum and wonder how it ever flew at all.

Samson Thanks to Ivan Fitzpatrick for the Samson image.

The General Synopsis At Midnight is my exploration of the sea areas of the BBC R4 Shipping Forecast, thanks to the Maeve Binchy Travel Award. The earlier post ‘Counting Down To Midnight’ explains what I’m up to and where I’m going.

The General Synopsis At Midnight

Sea areas Sole, Lundy and Fastnet: a trip to the Isles of Scilly

My trip to the Isles of Scilly for The General Synopsis At Midnight project kicks off in rural Devon…

The taxi driver collects me in the village of Tipton St John. On our way to Exeter airport he careers down the narrow country lanes, calling out a giddy ‘whoopsie’ every time we round a bend and encounter another car. Where am I going, he wants to know. ‘That’ll do,’ he says, when I tell him about the Isles of Scilly. ‘That’ll do nicely.’ Yes, I nod enthusiastically. Yes, it will. Once collectively called Area Severn, these three Sea Areas of Sole, Lundy and Fastnet meet in a point just northeast of the Isles of Scilly. Sole doesn’t touch land, the other two have land boundaries. The flight from Exeter to Hugh Town on a 17-seater Twin Otter plane takes less than an hour and I spend a lot of that time looking out the window and mulling over John Gore Grimes’ comment about the invisible boundaries between one sea area and another.

The girl sitting next to me on the plane looks to be about 12 and worried to be travelling alone. Her magazine – which I sneak glances at – is full of teen dilemmas and ads for make-up and boy bands I’ve never heard of. Our pilot and first officer sit cosy-close in the small cockpit at the front of the plane. They leave the door to the cockpit open and the smell from the bag of bananas the first officer has hanging from his seat keeps me company for the journey. I’ve never been this close to the controls of a plane and the similarity between them and those of a car surprise me. Sure, this plane has a lot more knobs and dials and countery-whirly things, but it also has pedals and a tiny rear view mirror. (What could be behind us worth looking at? It must be for checking on the passengers rather than the rush-hour air traffic). At one point mid-flight the first officer twists in his seat and looks behind. He appears to be counting the passengers and I’m glad the girl is reading, her attention distracted by an article entitled How to Stage a Comeback.

The safety demo was a dvd shown at the boarding gate in Exeter. In it, a large man in glasses and a high-vis jacket demonstrated how to pop open a small window in case of emergency. Unwittingly, I realise I have chosen the seat next to emergency exit. ‘Did you watch the demo?’ the first officer asks me. I nod. ‘So you’re happy you know how to operate the window exit?’ I nod again, too nervous to mention that I was so busy wondering how the large man could possibly have fitted out the tiny window and whether he would have to take his specs off first, that I didn’t actually notice how he removed the glass. The girl looks over and I smile reassuringly. No bother, I hope my smile tells her; breaking windows is my specialty. I surreptitiously cross my fingers and look at the window instead, my attempts to silently figure out the push-pull of the frame forgotten when we leave Cornwall behind and fly over the sea. I watch the flickering, clock-hands reflection our propeller makes as it turns. The water below is the gemstone green of Murano glass. Ponderous container ships appear to be barely moving. There are occasional dense shadows that I decide are long-lost wrecks shifting deep in the water. A lonely lighthouse is the single structure on an impossibly tiny outcrop of rock.

The first glimpse of St Mary’s, the largest of the inhabited Isles of Scilly, is beautiful. It is all sweeps and arcs, with intricate cut outs that make it look as though it has been delicately laser cut. On either side of its squeezed waist are the yellow curves of beaches. The Isles of Scilly are 28 miles southwest of Land’s End. Five of 140 in this archipelago are inhabited – some barely so – and even the big ones are little. At three miles wide and about 10 miles all around, St Mary’s is strollable in a day. More than once, in fact: I clock up four town-wide strolls in the first afternoon. Old Town, Old Town House, Old Town Road: by the end of stroll one, I’m beginning to see a pattern in the nomenclature system. The charity shop on the main street of Hugh Town is called Charity Shop. Hugh Town is where the action is on St. Mary’s. It’s a pretty, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sort of a place with an independent atmosphere that reminds me of Sidmouth, a town on the East Devon coast. Everyone I meet is talking about the weather. But isn’t it always like this in summer, I want to know. Hugh Town seems set up for heat. Designed for ice creams and salt-sticky faces. ‘Double your sun cream factor’, the bus driver had warned me. ‘You’ll fry otherwise.’ The island’s roads are being resurfaced and an Irish lad working there laughs when I ask him why everyone is going on about what a sunny day it is. ‘I’ve been here since February,’ he says, ‘and I’ve seen four seasons pass in four hours.’

Most people I chat to tell me that Harold Wilson is buried here on St Mary’s. In fact, so he gets so much airtime that I decide I’d better go and check out his grave on the far side of Hugh Town, in the 12th century Old Church. I bump into the Chaplain, who guides me through the graveyard. There is no crime here, he tells me. None. He never locks his house or his car. Children have to leave the islands to attend secondary school and before they go, they are taught what security means. (I pass a house later on – called, yes you’ve guessed it, Chaplain’s House – and notice the front door is wide open and I realise he wasn’t exaggerating). Harold Wilson’s grave is simpler than I had expected. A small bunch of fresh flowers rests against the headstone. A tiny red-hatted gnome stands on the granite edge. The Wilsons’ holiday home is nearby, I pass it as I walk back to the harbour. The curtains are closed. A small, plain stone bungalow, it puts me in mind of a breezeblock bunker outside a rural GAA hall. Perhaps the gnome strolled up from its garden.

It’s a hot, sunny afternoon and I am the only visitor in the Isles of Scilly Museum. The volunteer behind the cash desk thanks me profusely for coming in when I thank him for selling me an entry ticket. It is shipwreck heaven in here. In fact, the museum was founded in 1963 because they needed to house the Romano-British finds thrown up by that winter’s storms. One of my reasons for choosing the Isles of Scilly was the shipwrecks. You can’t swing a flip-flop in St Mary’s without hitting a shipwreck story. The Museum is home to many artifacts from the 1798 wreck the Colossos, which had on board the gems of noted collector Sir William Hamilton’s collection of Greek and Roman antiquities. It was found in 1975, and a second wreck near the site of the first yielded up its own long-hidden haul in 1999. Just as I’m about the leave the Museum I spot a display devoted to the Cita, which was en route to Ireland when she sank in 1997. She was on automatic pilot while all the crew slept when she ran aground. The Cita’s cargo spilled for miles around. The display features bits of tyres, St Bernard branded shoes, keyrings with ‘the luck of the Irish’ emblazoned on them.

A shipwreck I have never heard of before is the Thomas W Lawson. The world’s only seven-masted ship and largest pure sailing vessel without an auxiliary engine ever built, this schooner was destroyed nearby in a storm in December 1907. Its cargo of 58,000 barrels of paraffin caused what is believed to be the world’s first recorded oil spill. But the biggest shipwreck story is that of the wonderfully-named Sir Cloudesley Shovell. An Admiral of the Fleet, in 1707 he was sailing home in the HMS Association from a skirmish with the French when thick fog closed around his fleet. The story – given as true by Dava Sobel in Longitude, but disputed by some maritime historians – goes that one of the crew was a Scillonian and recognized the waters they were heading into. He disputed Sir Cloudesley’s reckoning that they were heading for Plymouth, and was so bold as to tell him so. Before the sailor had a chance to say ‘no, guv honest, I think that’s the Bristol Channel ahoy,’ Sir Cloudesley had him hanged for inciting mutiny. Not much consolation for the poor chap that he was proved right: within hours the Association, along with the Romney, the Firebrand and the Eagle, went smash-bang-wallop into the rocks. Only one man among the crew of close to 2,000 is said to have survived. Sir Cloudesley, his two stepsons and his dog apparently escaped on a small boat as far as the waters of nearby Porthellick Cove but most likely drowned trying to get onto the shore. A story persisted for many years that Sir Cloudesley did make it to land alive, but was murdered by a local woman for his priceless emerald ring and, in some versions, his shirt. It was decided that this disaster occured because the sailors could not correctly estimate their longitude, and as a result the Board of Longitude was set up at Greenwich in London.

I take a boat to St Agnes, the most southerly island. St Agnes makes St Mary’s look like New York. The winter population here is tiny. The summer tourist population swells the island, but most are day-trippers and so it falls quiet again in the evenings. From the harbour Porth Conger I walk past the decommissioned lighthouse to the inlets at Periglis Cove and St Warna’s Cove, named for the patron saint of shipwrecks. The further into the island, the quieter it becomes. I paddle around in the water, oddly aware of how far I am now from Cornwall and the mainland. Far out to sea is the lonely tower of Bishop Rock lighthouse and white-edged rocks break the water like old toothpaste smears on a sink.

I stop to read the community notice board. ‘If you have clothes for the fete please leave them in the snooker room’ it says, and it’s hard not to imagine the inhabitants as a casual sort of bunch, straight out of central casting for The Good Life, all happily buying each others’ cast-offs and stopping for a game of pool while they’re at it. St Agnes is connected at low tide by a sandbar to a tiny island called Gugh (pronounced Goo or Gue, depending on who’s talking). There are only two buildings on Gugh, each with a gently-curved aerofoil roof. I get chatting to a chap who turns out to be their owner. Gugh was uninhabited from the Neolithic period up until the 1920s, when an eccentric Irish surveyor decided to build himself a barn and a house. He is buried on the prow of the island, standing up. The current owner reckons he was quite a short chap, so that probably wasn’t as tricky a digging job as it sounds.

There is a home-made weather vane by the beach on St Agnes. A rough wooden cross, with a rope hanging down the middle and ‘Troy Town Weather Station’ written by hand across the top. (That’s it in the photo above). The dryness or otherwise of the rope determines the weather:

Rope : Forecast
Dry = Sunny
Wet = Rain
Still = Calm
Moves = Windy
White = Snow
Invisible = Fog
Gone = Force 10

The rope is dry and hangs perfectly still. I think of Craig Snell in the Met Office and the way the shipping forecast has its perfect codes, designed to convey so much with a single word. I stand on the beach on St. Agnes staring out to sea. Somewhere out there Sole, Lundy and Fastnet greet each other invisibly in the water. The only noise I can hear is the unsettling sound of gulls, their screeches the cries of unseen children.


The General Synopsis At Midnight is my exploration of the sea areas of the BBC R4 Shipping Forecast, thanks to the Maeve Binchy Travel Award. The earlier post ‘Counting Down To Midnight’ explains it all. Honest, it does… 

in the sea on st agnes

The General Synopsis At Midnight

Meeting The Met Office

Thursday July 24th and where better to begin The General Synopsis At Midnight than the Met Office? And where better in the Met Office than the desk where the Shipping Forecast is created?

Andy Yeatman is a thirty-year veteran of the Met Office. He has forecasted the weather, presented the weather and now, in his role as Deputy Head of Communications, has the unenviable task of explaining the weather to me. It’s all about dealing with uncertainty, he tells me. (That and understanding the Met Offices’ different audiences and their very different needs.) The Met Office HQ on the outskirts of Exeter – it moved to this purpose-built location from Bracknell some years ago – has the feel of a well-run and friendly small town. People are working in shared meeting spaces. Busy open plan offices spread out from a vast atrium. There’s a shop, a café, a gym. The Met Office employs 1,800 people at 60 locations throughout the world and on the Thursday lunchtime of my visit, it’s a busy spot. So despite what we in Ireland think, we’re not the only ones talking about the weather all the time.

Andy sits me down with Craig Snell, one of the team of Maritime Forecasters. The Chief Forecaster produces an overall forecast every six hours and it is Craig’s job to turn that forecast into the shipping briefing, using a computer model and a number of real-time information and observation sources such as ships and oil platforms. When the forecast is ready, he emails it to Radio 4 and the UK coastguard stations. He sits facing a triptych of screens. Today’s lunchtime broadcast on the desk in front of him and I am oddly thrilled at my one-hour-early preview of the Shipping Forecast. Craig’s job is to write a Forecast in as close to 350 words as he can (it goes up to 370 for the late night broadcast), giving as much information as is feasible, as clearly as possible. That information has to include sea-state, wind, weather and visibility but there’s only a limited palette of words he can use. No veering off into ‘a bit rough’ or ‘watch out there’ allowed. And yet he and the other Maritime Forecasters each have their own style and approach the information slightly differently. The priority in writing a forecast is to find what will have the most impact. As he puts it, ‘to concentrate on the things that would affect life.’ He suspects one of the reasons it’s popular with a generation older than his own is because they grew up with the Beaufort scale.

How many words are in his palette I wonder. Fifty-odd maybe? It reminds me of Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland, the way Craig can make a word work so hard. It is this repetition, he thinks, it what creates the poetry of the forecasts. ‘South’ appears in a single sentence several times, yet has a different meaning each time. For example, ‘fog’ can have only three adjectives: Patches, Banks and Extensive. More Extensive is allowed, if the fog is covering over half the area. There are no pea soupers at sea. Imminent means the first six hours of a given twelve-hour period, Soon means the second six hours. Visibility can be nothing other than Good, Moderate, Poor and Very Poor. Imagine if life was that simple, I think as I sit next to him and he explains these codes. Imagine day-to-day experience being that easy to grade and anticipate – and even to understand. Life would be simpler, that’s for sure. Would it be more interesting?

He tells me I can keep the copy of today’s lunchtime forecast. But before I stash it away, I ask him to sign it. Now that’s a souvenir.IMG_3445


Want to sea more? (Sorry)

The General Synopsis At Midnight is my exploration of the sea areas of the BBC R4 Shipping Forecast, thanks to the Maeve Binchy Travel Award. The earlier post ‘Counting Down To Midnight’ explains it all. Honest, it does.

The General Synopsis At Midnight

Counting down to Midnight

Counting down to The General Synopsis at Midnight…

I stared yet again at my map of the 31 Sea Areas (see Map here). From Iceland and Norway down as far as the coast of Spain, the sea seemed to stretch on forever. And I remembered a many-years-ago edition of Mastermind and the four contestants with their four completely different specialised subjects. I couldn’t recall three of them. (The Moomin books of Tove Jansson perhaps, or something equally learnable; The Walls of Limerick, the Fjords of Killary.) The fourth person had ‘agriculture’ as their specialised subject. I imagined him lowering himself slowly down into Magnus Magnusson’s famous black chair and thinking, uh oh, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. I’ve had what I’ve come to think of as my agriculture moments since I began to properly plan my exploration of the 31 Sea Areas of the Shipping Forecast. Too much sea! Too much land! Too many areas! But now that I’m counting down, and getting ready to visit to the Met Office in Exeter to see how the Forecast is prepared, I find that I’m getting excited all over again. Agriculture? A doddle.

The Shipping Forecast is broadcast four times a day on BBC Radio 4: 0048, 0535, 1201 and 1754. An essential tool for those at sea, it has become much more. Recently I met Captain Harry McClenahan of the Commissioners of Irish Lights, who talked about the power it has to transcend navigation. ‘At night, in a strange ocean you hear it,’ he said, ‘and it gives you a sense of security, and family.’ The music that precedes the late night broadcast is Sailing By, composed by Ronald Binge in 1963. Many listeners regard this waltz as a soothing lullaby, yet for Harry it doesn’t depict calm weather conditions, but rather is all about movement. ‘It is a painting of the sea,’ he said. Already I owe both Harry McClenahan and John Gore Grimes of the CIL a big thank-you for their help and advice. (For Shipping Forecast novices, is the perfect introduction. Laurie McMillan reads the late Forecast on radio and tv as part of BBC’s Arena night in 1993.). I was on the Marian Finucane radio show on May 31st to discuss the project and again on September 20th with an update about my overnight stay on Fastnet Lighthouse.

For my starting point, I have taken one of the four Shipping Forecasts broadcast on Wednesday May 28th 2014, which was Maeve Binchy’s birthday and the day this travel bursary was announced. (The full Forecast is included at the end of this post). In the photo I’m with her husband, Gordon Snell. With Gordon Snell In each Forecast, the Sea Areas are grouped by the prevailing/anticipated weather conditions, and in the Forecast broadcast at 0535 on May 28th, the groupings went like this:

Viking, North Utsire, Northern South Utsire
Southern South Utsire
North-East Forties
South-West Forties, Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger
German Bight, Humber
Wight, Portland, Plymouth
Irish Sea
Shannon, Rockall, Malin, Hebrides, Bailey, Fair Isle, Faeroes, South-East Iceland

(Those keen listeners among you will have noticed that Trafalgar isn’t on the list. That’s because it only ever features in the 0048 bulletin. I’m sure our paths will cross at some stage somehow…)

In The General Synopsis at Midnight, I’m going to explore the areas as dictated by the prevailing weather conditions on Maeve Binchy’s birthday. Those areas I can’t literally dip a toe into, I will explore in other ways such as through folklore, culture or a shared history.  John Gore Grimes, who is on the Board of the Commissioners of Irish Lights, was one of the first people I met while planning this project. As he rightly pointed out, the challenge of those Sea Areas that don’t touch land is to find what does distinguish them from each other – apart from the weather conditions. And he is a man who knows his weather: he has made 14 successful voyages to the Arctic, and seven attempts to reach Franz Josef Land (every single one of which was defeated by sea ice). He says that the weather in Bailey and South East Iceland can be ‘absolutely terrifying’, while Shannon and Rockall are ‘particularly lively.’ He described Biscay – with what I suspect is typical aplomb – as ‘the gathering place for a gale tea party.’

I am kicking off The General Synopsis at Midnight with a visit to the Met Office HQ in Exeter and a trip the Isles of Scilly. Just north-east of the Isles of Scilly is the common nodal point of Areas Sole, Lundy and Fastnet.

Seas, shipwrecks and seals beckon….

Shipping Forecast broadcast on Maeve Binchy’s birthday: