Nicola Anderson: Mood on 'boat to vote' is sombre and resolute
No party atmosphere like for gay marriage ballot, writes Nicola Anderson
After the hustle and bustle of Manchester, the train journey takes on a leisurely pace.
With unseeing eyes, generations of Irish women have come this way, their troubled minds elsewhere. From the collection of visual snapshots, one might have lodged, unbidden - a string of holiday caravans by the seaside, a turreted castle nestled into the Welsh hills, the shopping centres built outside drab towns.
An elderly English couple travelling with their middle-aged son have their own, more comfortable memories. "That is where we picked strawberries," the woman reminisces as the men murmur in agreement. Their tickets are punched by the jovial train inspector before they count out coins with slow care to order tea from the trolley. They alight at Bangor.
How might this journey be for an Irish woman, travelling alone with her thoughts? Traumatised, broken-hearted, fearful. Sharply dislodged from the comfort of familiar surroundings, longing to reach the port of Holyhead. And then the slow boat home.
On the journey this time there are, indeed, Irish women travelling alone. And Irish men, too. Determined to have their voices heard at last, their votes counted.
The word 'pilgrimage' is wrong in this context, yet there is an undeniable pathos about this quiet voyage.
Last time around, when the 'boat to vote' contingent travelled for the marriage referendum, there was a jubilant, party atmosphere on the Irish Sea. This time, the mood is sombre and reflective, yet determined. No triumphant displays are foreseen, regardless of the outcome.
An Irish woman in her late 40s, pulling along a pink wheelie case, is coming home to vote, she concedes. "But I'm not even going to get involved," she says, hurrying away, not wanting to be drawn.
An elderly man with his daughter and granddaughter had been over in the UK for a poignant purpose, to scatter some of the ashes of his late wife, who died only last month. They do not want to be named because some of their extended family were very much against her cremation, they explain.
But they had timed the trip particularly in order to be home in time to vote. They tell of meeting a Welsh woman in her early 80s who had been strongly encouraging them to vote Yes after learning of the referendum on British television.
"I see this as part of the progression of us as a society," says the man, who reveals he used to work in the lab of a hospital in London which performed terminations "30 or 40 years ago".
The statistic cited by the No side that one in five pregnancies in the UK are terminated troubles him, he confesses - but so, too, does the case of Savita Halappanavar, he adds.
With both a Yes and a Tá badge on her lapel, Orla Price (27), from Garristown, north Co Dublin, works with a charity for the homeless in London, having recently moved over. "It feels emotional," she says of coming home to vote.
Queuing up at the ferry terminal, another young Irish woman turns to her in delight. "You're home to vote too," she says, explaining she had been upset at the thought of doing the journey alone.
Emma O'Reilly, from Ballinasloe, Co Galway, moved recently over to Norwich. She was up very early to get the 5.30am train, she says, determined to cast her vote, which is in Dublin.
Should the referendum be passed, she sees it as "Ireland having a rebirth, to become the society it should have been all along". But it would be bitter-sweet, she adds. "Nobody will be celebrating."
Jack Olahan (27), from Rathfarnham, in Dublin, works for Betfair and is living in Shoreditch, London, and is also travelling by ferry. He feels the importance of coming home for this. "I have to stand by my Irish sisters," he says simply. "We've seen elections that we didn't expect so you can't be complacent. If I didn't come home and the referendum was lost, I would feel guilty."
Waving to him is Omar O'Reilly (23), from Donnybrook, also home to vote. He does not want to see female friends or relatives stuck in an impossible situation and to be told they cannot make a choice.
Most of his friends have travelled home to vote. "I'd say 50 plus, from all over Europe," he says.
"It's an expense - but it's an expense with a potentially great return. This is important."