I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Mariners’ Prayers


Rockall, Malin, Hebrides. Southwest gale eight to storm ten, veering west, severe gale nine to violent storm eleven. Rain, then squally showers. Poor, becoming moderate.

North Utsire, South Utsire, Forties, Dogger, Fisher, German Bight … has there ever been such a disjunction between comforting words, familiar to so many people, in Britain in particular, as nightly bedtime ritual, and the reality they point to: dangerous seas, biting cold, high swells and small fishing vessels pitching about or making grimly for calmer seas or safe harbour?

Many of us may remember (a little sentimentally perhaps) the practice of night prayers, kneeling down by the bedside, clean pyjamas, “God bless Mammy and God bless Daddy … and all my little friends”, rain beating on the window pane perhaps, but with Daddy and God in your corner could anything bad really happen? When you’ve stopped saying night prayers, or any prayers, other rituals sometimes slip in to take their place. Whatever the day has brought, by the time the Shipping Forecast comes round at 00.48 on BBC Radio 4, you will be safe under your duvet, slipping away to the end of the earth. In Carol Ann Duffy’s words

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer —
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.

Finisterre, sadly, was renamed FitzRoy in 2002, ten years after Duffy’s poem, causing predictable “outcry” in the shires ‑ They say it’s to avoid confusion with a different sea area that the French and Spanish call Finisterre. But why should we care what foreigners call anything?

BBC Radio 4 controller Mark Damazer says of the shipping forecast: “It scans poetically. It’s got a rhythm of its own. It’s eccentric, it’s unique, it’s English. It’s slightly mysterious because nobody really knows where these places are. It takes you into a faraway place that you can’t really comprehend unless you’re one of these people bobbing up and down in the Channel.” Mmm. “Eccentric … unique … English”. Could be something in that, and as Zeb Soanes, a regular forecast reader says: “It reinforces the sense of being islanders with a proud seafaring past.” Proud, and warm under their duvets.


Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.

Pray for us now. Grade 1 piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child’s name as though they named their loss.

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer –
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.