Awareness of being on a boat is undeniable; the walls and floors are vibrating as the engines of the elderly Stena vessel power us across the Irish Sea from Pembrokeshire to Co Wexford; a wake runs from the stern in the unusually calm waters. The ferry spends most of its time neither in one place or the other; a self-enclosed world where there is nothing to do except wait.
Being on a boat recalls again Stoppard’s lines from “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” on being and being.
“You can’t not be on a boat.
I’ve frequently not been on boats.
No, no, no… what you’ve been is not on boats”.
Hamlet’s erstwhile friends are caught in a discussion on being as action and being as existence. But being comes in many forms; neither Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are drive to refect on beng as identity. They are Renaissance men, internationalists who move easily from one nation to another; if they are Danish, it is by accident of birth and not through conscious choice. Being as identity belongs to a world of realpolitik of which they are no part; it is part of the world of military strongarms like Fortinbras, not the world of intellectual loftiness in which Hamlet lives (though that does not bar him from the odd spot of wanton killing).
Being as identity comes to mind while queueing at the ship’s coffee bar. In front stands a man in a Tipperary Gaelic Athletic shirt. The blue and yellow of Tipperary will be in great evidence on Sunday when their hurling team line out against Kilkenny in the All Ireland final. 82,000 fans at Croke Park plus hundreds of thousands watching on television will have a keen sense of what being as identity means. The man’s shirt was not like the replica soccer shirts worn by children who have never been near their club’s stadium; it was a declaration of identity, ‘I am of Tipperary; being of Tipperary, I am declaring my allegiance. Those who wear soccer shirts cannot make such a declaration; unless you live in a particular corner of south-west London, you cannot claim, ‘I am of Chelsea’. It is as inconsequential to one’s identity as me wearing an Aviron Bayonnais rugby when I am not Basque and do not live in Pyrenees-Occidental.
As the Welsh shoreline fades into no more than a dark blur on the horizon, there is a nagging question of what being British means. What is signified by the passport in my coat pocket? What national stories and traditions now hold the place together? What does being British mean?
You can’t not be on a boat. Ultimately, you can’t not be anywhere; identity must mean something, but what?