By Nick Stewart
Each time I made the ferry crossing from Liverpool to Belfast it was as if the weather wanted to force me to stay in England. It was always stormy, always a gale, always from the north (or, as I saw it, from the North). These night-time crossings were filled with apprehension, and not just about the weather. I was afraid to return to a place riven with conflict, on the edge of descending into a no-holds-barred civil war. Bombings, assassinations, riots and random violence were the quotidian reality of Belfast in the early 1980s and these journeys felt like travelling into that city’s past, a past that continued to inhabit the present, past and present locked in a toxic, parasitic embrace. Even now, as I remember these crossings, I find it impossible to isolate a single experience: they all blur into one.
As the ship pulls away from the quay, it begins to rise and fall on waves that have ricocheted from the storm beyond the protective embrace of the harbour walls. We move slowly into the dark, foam-flecked night, and all thought of a quiet sleep is banished by surging adrenalin. The city lights telescope to a thinning horizon, a strip of light, by turns eclipsed and revealed through waves that rear like dark cliffs out of the blackness beyond. A seagull effortlessly floats into the ship’s floodlit aura, a being of light in the storm-tossed void.
And then the real waves come, monstrous, capped with manes of foam, slamming hard against the bow, the whole vessel shuddering, before sweeping the decks: flash floods, over in seconds. Through the steel doors that flank the rain lashed decks, from deep within the bowels of the ship, metallic noisess echo as cars and lorries strain at the chains that hold them secure. Or so we innocent passengers hope, as hour after hour we sail, never deviating in spite of the onslaught, pushing deeper into the open sea.
The storm bends perception. A moment of terror — when I think we are to sink beneath a mile- high tidal wave — dissolves when a pale cloud is revealed scudding across a waning moon.
The ship’s bar is another reality, a space that defies reality. A replica pub, it’s a refuge for the lorry drivers and assorted ne’er-do-wells whose eyes are permanently glued to a TV bolted high on a bulkhead and magically, in this storm, tuned to a channel that features football on endless replay. By midnight, everyone is so drunk they can’t tell if it’s the booze or the storm that tips them headlong into each other. This bar is a tiny creature of light, pitched every which way in the storm. A glitch in the night, just a single wave away from extinction.
Later, in the early hours before dawn, an uneasy calm descends on the ship. The violence of the crossing relents as we approach the shelter of the Irish coast. Most are asleep now, rocked in the cradle of the waves. There’s only the winking lights of the abandoned slot machines . The ship creaks a little, as if stretching, releasing its tensions.
The Irish Sea is a space-time discontinuity through which we pass before emerging, battered and bruised, into the calm of Belfast Lough. A lighthouse beam pierces the grey dawn, a warning and a welcome: Ireland is here. And there is the city. At first, it seems like any other, like where we have come from, but we time-travellers know it is different. Its difference is just not visible from this distance.
As the dawn breaks we sail between rising hills to the north and south, two great arms, gathering us in to berth, to birth our return — home.
Nick Stewart is an artist who, since the 1980s, has created a diverse body of exhibitions and publications, nationally and internationally. He has worked with drawing, performance, video, photography, text and film. He was born and brought up in Ireland and his Irish background continues to inform his art today. He has published two books, no-one's not from everywhere (2008) and Which is The: 49 Views (2012), the latter the product of an eleven-day journey along the Irish border. In 2017 he completed his first feature length film. A selection of his earlier work is archived here. Nick Stewart is a Londoner.
Brian McHenry is a freelance illustrator who lives on the north east coast of Ireland. He works with both traditional and digital media. His art explores the act of remembering and the physical/ emotional landscape we inhabit when this happens. His portfolio can be viewed here. In November, this year, he wrote and illustrated You Cannot See Them Anymore, They Are Not There — about the St Kilda archipelago — for The Island Review.