Does anyone else feel a stab of grief at the news that, from tomorrow (January 11th, 2011) Irish coastal fog signals will fall silent? One by one, at Fastnet, the Old Head of Kinsale, Hook Head, Tuskar Rock, the Kish, the East Pier at Dun Laoghaire.
Their low-frequency, mournful sound is a fundamental element of the personal stock of co-ordinates of anyone who lives near the sea. They are the sonic equivalent of landmarks like Howth, the blue peak of the sugarloaf, the sweep of the piers at Dun Laoghaire. Their sound finds its way deep inside the root of our brains, strikes a remembered chord from murky childhood nights spent moored in a bed listening to their song, as lonely as if the world itself was looking for a safe way home. They punctuate certain indeterminate kinds of weather, when the borders of sea, sky and land dissolve and become fluid, when one wrong move could send you wildly off course, out of your element. The foghorns remind landlubbers of our luck, to have solid ground beneath our feet.
Making the announcement, the Commissioners of Irish Lights said that modern technology has made the old signals redundant. By technology they mean satellite systems and GPS (yes, the same GPS that directs hapless motorists to take short cuts across treacherous hills, never mind the ice, forget the snow). But surely smaller boats still need them, and what about when all those fancy on-board navigation systems break down? Fog is disorienting on so many levels: what about the human comfort to be derived from hearing the peculiarly consoling consistency of that low, drawn-out note? You may be lost, it says, the borders of the worlds may be shifting, but solidity exists, to be found. There’s danger abroad, but safety too.
At a time when we need every scrap and tatter of luck we can find, and any possible aid to help us find and keep our bearings, it seems a shame to relinquish these. It doesn’t make me feel any better to know that the sound will be forgotten far more quickly than it deserves; by next week it will already be an anachronism, preserved in fiction maybe, or poetry, or dreams.
We don’t know when, exactly, the last note will die away. No further notice will be given.