There are times in all of our lives when the opportunity to return to a familiar place evokes a powerful emotional response. In recent times, such feelings have been intensified by the simple fact that international travel has been difficult or even impossible at times. The journeys that we make often serve to frame our lives; they are a physical manifestation of our interconnectedness. We live in a digital age and so our ability to communicate and connect may often seem effortless. Zoom, Facebook and WhatsApp have provided a lifeline for many throughout the pandemic and it is not an exaggeration to conclude that the way in which we relate to one another will have been forever changed by the last two years.
For years we have lived our lives between the UK and Ireland. Thirteen of the girls’ sixteen cousins live in Ireland; as do Fiona’s parents and four of her siblings. Having lived in Dublin for a number of years, my friendships and sense of connection with Ireland transcends the familial. Rossall, Essex and Ireland are the places I feel most at home and I do think a sense of belonging becomes more important with advancing age. In my twenties, I enjoyed the sense of being an outsider but now I feel much less certain in this regard.
Travelling is so often associated with exploration and new experiences. We have all felt the thrill which comes with discovering new places and immersing ourselves in hitherto unfamiliar cultures. However, during the pandemic, the journeys that we have made have been almost exclusively born out of an essential need to revisit the familiar – to get back to where we belong. The difficulty that many of our boarders have experienced when travelling between School and family homes overseas has weighed heavily on many of our minds. Physical separation is difficult to bear and no amount of video calls can make up for the warm embrace of a loved one.
In the runup to Christmas, RTE News always sends a reporter and cameran down to Dublin Airport to film the emotional scenes witnessed in the arrivals hall. Crying relatives run towards each other and it is heartwarming and life affirming. Families being reunited as sons or daughters make an annual return from Australia or America is an integral part of the Irish narrative. The history of emigration is one of hope and joy but it is also one of sadness and separation. No Christmas in Ireland is complete without that sense of a home gathering. The joy of being together feels precious but it is tinged with sadness for it is accompanied by the knowledge that loved ones will head off once again to resume their lives overseas.
I have an incorrigibly romantic view of life and whilst others might decry the discomfort of a Ryanair flight or Irish Ferries, I do not think that I will ever tire of the excitement that I feel when crossing the Irish Sea. Drawing into Dublin Port on a beautifully calm morning just before Christmas, I marvelled at the majestic beauty of the Wicklow Mountains, the sedate splendour of Howth and the red and white towers of the Pigeon House Power Station. Ahead of us, the giant cranes in the port gracefully moved containers as if participating in some giant game of Tetris. A few cargo ships lay at anchor in the still waters of the Bay and the familiar sounds and smells of the docks pervaded my senses as we tied up.
I absolutely love coming into Dublin Port, not least because I know how much it means for Fiona to return home. As the boat comes into port, it passes Pigeon House Quay. It was from here that some of the very first of those sentenced to transportation were forced to say goodbye to their loved ones. A conviction for a petty crime could result in such a punishment. A couple of million people emigrated in the aftermath of the Famine and so Dublin port and Cobh harbour have assumed a historical significance akin to Ellis Island.
Chris Rea’s ‘Driving Home for Christmas’ is a guilty pleasure of mine. Its saccharine lyrics and jaunty melody create the sort of warm fuzzy glow that accompanies thoughts of home. For some, this Christmas provided the first opportunity to come together after a period of protracted absence. In particular, I am thinking of a friend of mine who lives in Sydney but has not been able to get home to see his aged parents in north Lebanon since November 2019. For him, finally touching down in Beirut Airport last week must have provided a moment of indescribable joy.
There was much huffing and puffing last year from those who felt rather put out that their holiday plans had been disrupted by Covid. It was as if they felt that the greatest tragedy or inconvenience of the pandemic arose from the fact that they were no longer going to get their regular fix of sun in Marbella. Holidays are great and a change of scenery does us all the world of good. The enforced separation of loved ones has surely been one of the cruellest aspects of the pandemic. We are meant to be together in families and communities. Love, friendship and togetherness are essential aspects of what it means to be human. Rarely do we thrive alone. Our wellbeing is not well-served by separation and an internationally-minded community such as ours thrives on an outward-looking approach which is culturally diverse and resolutely interconnected. Strong relationships are at the heart of all that we do.
It is my dearest wish that travel will become much more straightforward in 2022 and that members of our own community will no longer experience the sadness and anguish arising from enforced separation. As we emerge from this pandemic and look ahead to brighter and happier times, the resumption of hassle-free travel is something that will be welcomed by so many Rossallians around the world. If nothing else, the pandemic has highlighted to us the importance of family and the bonds of friendship that serve to bind us together. Virtual togetherness is only ever a poor imitation of the real thing.
Happy New Year!
Headmaster of Rossall School