I’m writing this sitting on a plane on the short hop from Southampton to Cork. We’re heading home for Easter. The older kids are behaving miraculously well – for now. Our toddler is asleep on my lap, which explains my ability to type.
This same route, but by sea, was a staple for the old transatlantic liners. Famously, the RMS Titanic took this route on her maiden, and final, voyage. Back then, in 1912, travellers stepping on board in Southampton and arriving in Cobh – then Queenstown - were travelling between two great ports of the same state. The same coins and stamps were accepted in Cork and Southampton, and the same red post boxes stood in front of the Victorian houses on the seafronts in both ports.
A hundred years ago, these islands were politically unified, albeit with home rule in the offing for Ireland. Yet the cultural differences were perhaps greater back then than today. Nowadays, we watch the same television channels, communicate digitally and flit from London to Dublin in an hour.
Many families on board this plane, like ours, have an Irish and English parent. Such journeys home have been made for generations. Whenever I think flying with small children is tough, I think of my uncle Tony riding his motorcycle home to Kilrush from Norfolk in the 1960s, with his wife and daughter in the sidecar.
Even further back, in the age of sail, passage between Ireland and Britain was frequent and commonplace. Despite the hype, Brexit won’t change this longstanding connectedness much, since the EU, the UK and Ireland all say they’re all committed to the Common Travel Area. Yet Brexit does mean an ever-greater political differential between the two islands, even as ever-larger aspects of our culture are shared. Across both islands, we follow the same football teams, watch Netflix, and shop in Tescos and M&S. The bitter divides of the Reformation have been nullified by this secular age. Despite such convergence, Scotland may soon join Ireland in the EU and who knows what path Northern Ireland may ultimately choose.
It is interesting to see such political fragmentation take place, even as the peoples of these islands become ever more connected, and perhaps more fundamentally similar, than ever before. Having lived in England for nearly two years, I feel at home on both islands. Sean dressed as Setanta at a recent school dress up day, and thinks of himself as Irish, yet he doesn’t feel different from his classmates, and nor is he. Many of them too have Irish ancestry.
As we fly at this moment over the beaches of St David’s in Wales, I can already see Wexford in the distance. This extraordinary archipelago is small, and its islands are close, yet ‘these islands’ don’t even have a name acceptable to all, the British Isles being the geographic term rejected by many in Ireland. Yet, neither the lack of a collective name, nor Brexit, nor various independence movements can change geography, nor history, nor the bonds of affection that naturally arise when people meet.
We on these fragmented, yet intimately bound, islands will continue our ancient rivalries, and friendships, in tandem, and our migrations and intermarriages will go on, as they have done for centuries. Family links and technology means our human definition of home expands, despite the machinations of politicians.
As the airplane touches down on the sacred concrete of Cork airport, my English wife spontaneously exclaims, in her Surrey tones, “It’s great to be home!”
Yet, whenever the ferry noses in to harbour on the Isle of Wight, I also feel that I’m coming home. Perhaps because both places are now home.