The textbook asked the class where they might go if they were looking for quietness; five options were offered, a church, a hilltop, a cathedral, a beach, and their own bedroom. Discussion ensued about whether a beach was a place of quietness, it was agreed that it would depend on which beach was chosen. “Canon Ian,” said one student, “I have never been to a beach.”
It was a comment to be dealt with sensitively, economic marginalization is a daily fact for some members of the community. “Not even to a beach in Clare?” I asked.
“Definitely not Clare, I don’t like Clare.”
Co Laois is the only county in Ireland that doesn’t border a county with a coastline, but even with that, our school lies only sixty miles from Dublin and sixty miles from Limerick; a drive of two hours or less would bring one to a beach in Bray, Co Wicklow, or Tramore, Co Waterford, or to the Atlantic beaches of Co Clare. A beach is not an exotic and faraway place accessible only to wealthy travellers.
To have reached the age of twelve and not having been to a beach seemed strange to someone who had grown up in the English West Country. Beaches meant the sea and the sea was somewhere altogether other, it was a complete contrast with the green farmland that surrounded our village. The sea was infinite in variety and possibility; it was a place of imagination and romance; it was a place of adventure and battle.
Standing on a beach and staring out at even the greyest of seas offered an escape from the ordinariness of life. The most fascinating shorelines were those where vast Atlantic waves broke upon sandy strands, or where shipping lanes were visible, a boy’s imagination weaving tales around rust-streaked freighters bound for distant ports. Beaches meant people who were relaxed; they meant paddling and fishing; they meant picnics and ice cream; they meant fish and chips and sticks of rock; they meant cups of tea and glasses of shandy. Beaches were good places to be, they meant school was days, if not weeks away; they meant parents had time for walks and laughter; they meant the opportunity to meet new friends and girls who smiled with sparkle in their eyes.
To have never been to a beach would have meant the loss of some of the most memorable moments of childhood years. To have attempted an explanation of what beaches had meant would have sounded strange to someone forty-five years my junior. How does one explain something the other person has never known?