24 June 2016

‘Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight
Where ignorant armies clash by night’

‘… you hear the grating roar / Of pebbles which the waves draw back’ … on the shore at Bray, Co Wicklow, this evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

If I were to take the temperature of Ireland this evening, I would say the overwhelming majority of us are in a state of shock, if not disbelief, after the result of yesterday’s referendum on British membership of the European Union.

Our nearest neighbour and best friend has decided to walk away.

Of course, I accept democracy and I cannot say that the majority of British voters who voted for a Brexit are racists. But when I look at who is happy – Marine Le Pen in France, Gert Wilders in the Netherlands, Donald Trump who is now in Scotland, and smug Nigel Farage in London – I fear the rise of the far right who smugly widen their voter base on the evils of racism and nationalism.

I fear a land border been created between Ireland and the UK, running from Derry to Newry. Imagine replicating the razor-wire border that runs the northern border of Greece, separating it from its non-EU neighbours in the Balkans, and think of the faces of those desperate refugees that Farage abused in his racist poster last week.

The young generation, the future of Britain and the future of Europe has been sacrificed on the altar of political ambition where the high priests are Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson.

Nigel Farage has a German wife who can help him to find safety in the EU if he ever needs to in the future. Boris Johnson is never going to give up his US passport. But the next generation of promising young British citizens will find that these middle aged politicians, in their smug ambitions, have sold their birthright for a mess of pottage.

Europe has guaranteed a minimum wage, health care rights for travelling Europeans, workers’ rights, women’s rights … the future seems dismal this evening.

New border controls may mean Irish business travellers each having to queue for an extra half hour each morning on landing at Stansted, Heathrow and Birmingham, and repeating the same exercise before they catch the last flight back in the evening.

I fly on one of these routes at least once a month on average. The corridor between Dublin and London is the second busiest international air route, following closely behind the air corridor between Taipei and Hong Kong. Consolidate and quantify these waiting half-hours and we can only imagine how much this exercise alone is going to cost business.

Now why should the French bother spending French taxes on stopping refugees at Calais making their way to Dover. Unwittingly, Farage and Johnson may find they have brought upon themselves the one problem they do not want to face.

I tried to clear my head this evening by taking a walk before dinner along the pebble-strewn shoreline at Bray, Co Wicklow. And I found that in my head I was going over and over again the words of Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach first published almost 150 years ago in 1867 in his collection New Poems.

Matthew Arnold was the godson of John Keble, and his father was the headmaster of Rugby.

In Dover Beach, Arnold is on the shore at Dover, facing the Strait of Dover, the narrowest part of the Channel across to Calais. Arnold sees in the retreat of the tide a metaphor for the loss of religious and faith values in Victorian England. But he could be reflecting on the loss of social and political values in England today and the way that this may end in a bloody conflict in which people slay not their feared enemies but their own friends, neighbours and colleagues.

The beach at Dover is bare, with only a hint of humanity in a light that “gleams and is gone.” He hears the sound of the sea as “the eternal note of sadness.” The Greek tragic playwright Sophocles also heard this sound as he stood on Aegean shores.

The final stanza begins with an appeal to love, then moves on to the famous ending metaphor. This is an allusion to a passage in Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War (Book 7, 44), in which he describes a battle at night on a beach in Sicily during the Athenian invasion.

In the battle, the attacking army became disoriented while fighting in the dark and in their fear many of these soldiers inadvertently killed each other.

On this sun-filled evening, I fear so much that in the last 48 hours we have unleashed too many dark forces.

‘But now I only hear / Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, / Retreating, to the breath / Of the night-wind’ … on Bray beach this evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Dover Beach, by Matthew Arnold

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay
. Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

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