My childhood holidays involved three possible routes to Ireland, my parents’ homeland. There was the train from Euston to Holyhead followed by the boat to Dun Laoghaire, County Dublin. After my mother passed her driving test (soon after my 10th birthday) we went by car. She did all the driving, usually to Holyhead, to take that same ferry to Dun Laoghaire. Once, and once only, the five us (mother, father, sister, brother, me) took another route, to Fishguard, for the ferry to Rosslare in Wexford.
As you may know, Holyhead is in Anglesey, an island off the north-west coast of Wales, and Fishguard is in the south-west corner of Wales. The route from West London to Fishguard is straightforward: M4 as far as it goes, then A-roads the rest of the way. The route to Holyhead is longer and takes you through Snowdonia. It’s picturesque, but there always seems to be rather a lot of it, whether you’re racing for a ferry or heading home from the Republic.
I was 11 when we took that one and only crossing from Fishguard to Rosslare as a family. Then as now there were two sailings a day, 12 hours apart. We were aiming for the 3pm ferry and might have made it, but we hit traffic in South Wales, and then spent a long time stuck behind a tractor, in a line of cars that stretched back as far we could see. On that section of road there was only one lane on either side, and there was no overtaking for long stretches of it. We arrived at the ferry terminal in time to see our boat beginning its journey across the Irish Sea.
Back in the 1970s there wasn’t much for a family of five to do in Fishguard for twelve hours. Pubs, even if they tolerated children, were closed between 2pm and 7pm. We drove around town, found a hotel with a restaurant, and had dinner there. We took our time, but when we’d finished we still had seven hours before the boat left. By 9pm we were back at the terminal and tried to get some sleep, all five of us in the Renault 6. I couldn’t sleep and couldn’t read by the light in the car. Everyone else had nodded off. I opened my door as quietly as I could and went into the café to try and read some more. It was noisy in there, and smoky, and the fluorescent lights were flickering. We had a light like that in our kitchen. I never enjoyed reading in that kind of light. If it was flickering, like it did just before the bulb went, it gave me a headache. I tried reading for about ten minutes and then went back to the car. Around midnight I dozed off and woke when Mum turned the engine on and started driving. We were on the boat in plenty of time and the rest of the journey passed without incident.
The most memorable part of the following morning was attending an early mass somewhere between Rosslare and Kilkenny. It remains the shortest complete service that I have ever attended. From the Introductory Rite to “The mass is ended, go in peace” took less than 15 minutes.
The only other time that I have missed a boat to or from Ireland was in 2009. I took my son (then aged 4) to Dublin for the weekend. We had tickets for the All-Ireland Hurling Final, Kilkenny aiming to win their 4th title in row, against Tipperary. We took the train from Euston to Holyhead. The boat went to Dublin Port rather than Dun Laoghaire and there was a bus into the centre of town, where we were staying.
The weekend passed enjoyably, helped by a Kilkenny victory. On the Monday morning we visited cousins in Dun Laoghaire. They live a 15-minute walk from the ferry terminal, and our boat was due to leave at 1.30pm. We didn’t allow as much time to get there as I’d hoped but we arrived at 1.15pm, still a quarter of an hour before sailing time. “The boat’s gone,” we were told. I replied, “No it hasn’t, it’s right there, I can see it.” The response: “No, it’s gone, you’re too late, you should have checked in 30 minutes before departure.” There was nothing on my tickets to indicate this. I pointed this out, and pointed out that they could still let us on. The boat was still there. The response from the woman at the check-in desk could have come straight from the mouth of one of her counterparts here in the UK. Nothing to do with her, take it up with the people who issued the tickets, not her fault, no way we were going to be allowed onto the boat, that sort of thing. I was temporarily speechless, and began to think through alternatives. We could make it to the airport and get a plane to somewhere in the UK. My son was starting primary school the next day, so we couldn’t extend our stay by another night.
The woman behind us, who had also been told that the boat had gone, had her own Plan B. There was a sailing from Dublin Port an hour later. We could try that. The three of us shared a cab to the Port, bought tickets for the next ferry, and were allowed straight on. My son and I arrived at Euston 40 minutes later than originally planned, sometime after 9pm. Things had worked out fine.
From personal experience I can confirm that if you’re going to a miss a boat to or from Ireland it’s better to do it in Dublin than Fishguard.