Letters from Paradise Series

What If?

A high spring tide pushed warm clear ocean waters through a passage lined by coconut trees. This idyllic scene was animated by noddy terns wheeling in an almost cloudless blue sky, and by the occasional splashes of manta rays breaking the surface as their gaping jaws sieved plankton. In the distance a lone observer of this bio-symphony could just make out the unrestrained laughter and chatter of children, let out of school, jumping into the channel from a broken down old jetty on the shoreline.

Meanwhile, the upstairs bar in Keating's pub, near Dublin's main postal sorting office, was enveloped in its own cacophony of social interactions, fuelled by a steady procession of trays carrying meals and drinks. It was as if there was no tomorrow for the protesting workers and officials who were enduring the tenth week of what was to become one of the longest strikes in the history of the Irish State – the 1979 Irish Postal Strike – all 18 weeks of it.

On the opposite side of the country, in Connemara's emerging Spring, our two young children were making their own adjustments to their new lives in Ireland as I struggled to construct and lay moorings for a number of seatrout cages, hoping that their next occupants would be Atlantic salmon.

It had been a long journey to arrive at this point – a year of Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) teaching at two schools in Tarawa (now Kiribati), five years enduring the barren deserts of Sudan, and exploring the Red Sea's kaleidoscopic coral reefs, and nearly three years researching the fishery potential of Saudi Arabia.

Time to focus on the here and now but the call of distant corals remained hard to resist. I dived back down to the seabed in a chilly Clifden Bay, connecting mooring chains to large concrete blocks. Despite the excitement of starting a new venture, I worried that it wasn't just fish that I was chaining down. Was this also the end of my travel and adventures?

We were leaving so much behind to start a new life and yet so much that was behind us provided the opportunities that we were now grasping. I was learning the hard way that prosperity in Ireland was hard won and I felt for the striking workers who were being manipulated by the political elite.

The lone figure taking in the peaceful tranquillity of Taborio lagoon was Tony, with whom I had shared a house during my VSO days fifteen years earlier, in 1964 and 1965. Like me he was captivated by the memories of those enchanting days. He had returned to the island to explore the possibility of living there once again, perhaps as a local pilot instead of the commercial British Airways pilot that he had become. Thanks to BA's offer that was too good to turn down, Tony had a year off and was making the most of it. He had a plan.

I too had a plan and was marching, with resolve and commitment, along the path it was taking me. Or was I? Whilst resigning from my post in Saudi Arabia and planning to become a real life fish farmer, I was struck by 'cold feet' and applied for a university staff position at the University of the South Pacific. My unorthodox application for this job, written in, and despatched from, Saudi Arabia, before resigning from my job there, had focused on a situation that had worried me since my sailing and diving days in Tarawa lagoon.

The socio-economic case for linking the jewel-like islets of this coral atoll with a thread of rocky causeways had proved too persuasive to local communities craving to visit the islands' main town of Betio. These marine dams blocked the free-flow of oxygen-rich seawater between the ocean and the lagoon, and would, I wrote to the university with brazen self-confidence, have serious consequences. Unfortunately the causeway construction had proceeded by then and it would be a challenge to undo the environmental damage that they had caused. "I will study the impact of the causeways on the health of the lagoon," I informed the academic selection board.

Whilst I was gearing up the Irish fish farm, I wondered what the appointments' panel would make of this unusual job application, straying far from their stated requirements. Days, weeks and months passed. Thanks to the postal strike I heard nothing and my mind shifted more and more into focussing on how to secure floating fish cages in Ardbear Bay. It was early summer but autumn storms and winter freeze-ups were not far off. The idea of diving once more among Kiribati's coral reefs was hard to ignore. Perhaps someone else could run the farm whilst our family pursued our dreams of following in Cousteau and Hass's flipper strokes ­– diving to adventure, and getting paid for it?

Not only was there a prolonged silence from the University's headquarters in Fiji, but the population in general, throughout Ireland, was without mail. A veritable mountain of unsorted and undelivered post was building at Dublin's main sorting office. Our manual telephone exchange and its number, Clifden 250, proved almost unworkable for overseas callers. We weren't just cut off from offices in Dublin, but also from the big wide world.

Tony in Tarawa, cocooned within his own cultural and social bubble, was unaware of my aspirations to return to academia. He continued with his explorations in Kiribati, visiting and meeting by chance, various luminaries from his own treasured days in this tropical paradise.

But for our family no news meant no news. We had no idea how long the postal strike would last, nor what political intrigue was involved in its prolongation. The "known unknowns" speech that was later delivered by Donald Rumsfeld in relation to post 9-11 analysis had not yet been uttered, but the concept of planning for an uncertain future was all too obvious. The 'bird in the hand' was Ardbear Seafarms and the thousands of young fish that needed feeding every hour or so, whilst the possibility of escaping to the south Pacific for a dream job in my beloved Gilbert & Ellice Islands was like the 'bird in the bush' – within sight but not yet captured.

I had no idea that government ministers, supposed to be fighting against the strike in Ireland were, according to investigations carried out by the Irish Times, actively supporting the strikers, and thus further delaying delivery of the letter that I figured by now must be buried in the overflowing mountain of correspondence that almost reached the ceiling of the sorting office. The Irish Times journalists reported that many of the picketing postal workers had Charles Haughey to thank for their food and drink whilst on strike duty. Gardai obtained a copy of the cheque that was used to settle the bar bill and handed it to the Department of Justice, suspecting that Mr Haughey was engaged in a game of cat-and-mouse, aimed at sabotaging his own government. Indeed, the Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, would later blame Haughey for undermining his authority at a crucial stage of the negotiations with the Irish Post Office Workers Union.

It looked like being a long hot summer and the trout were piling on weight. I had reached a point of no return. White sand, coconut fringed beaches and diving over pristine reefs remained figments of my imaginings as I continued to build our farm in the bay next to our house.

Then, just as I had given up hope of diving through the inviting escape hatch that academia might present, two things happened. Tony returned to the UK to size up his options, and the strike ended. It was June 25 and I remember thinking that my lost letters might finally turn up. It had been a devastating economic crisis for the country, especially its tourism. Unable to make, confirm or cancel bookings, hotels had been placing advertisements in major newspapers like the New York Times, telling travellers just to turn up and they would be accommodated. The whole nation breathed a communal sigh of relief when it was all over.

But it was another ten days or so before a knock on our door by a local member of the Garda Siochana brought us an important looking envelope full of brightly coloured stamps and written instructions. The Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin, and the British Embassy in Fiji had both handled it at some stage in its five month delivery saga. The policeman requested our discretion in mentioning how the letter was finally delivered to us. Almost before I had ripped it open, heart pumping, to discover its contents, a large bundle of letters was also delivered by our neighbour and local postman, Paddy Hoverty – his first such visit for almost five months. Among this unexpected bundle was another letter from the Gilberts, this time from Tony.

The word "congratulations" was used as the opening line of each letter that I now saw had been posted in early February, back when I was building the first cages for the fish farm. Whilst reading Tony's letter, with details of a meeting with Ieremia Tabai, the Kiribati Chief Minister on Tarawa, who had excitedly revealed the success of my application to the University of the South Pacific (USP) to work at their new Atoll Research Unit and the attractive house that they had allocated for me to live in, next to the ocean, the phone rang. "Hi Peter, this is Jacky O'Grady (O'Grady's Seafood Restaurant) I'll take a box of those fish if can you deliver before 5pm." It was our first order. The letter of offer from the university surprised and excited me but I could hardly just walk away from what we had started. Both letters were consigned to a file on my desk marked 'Letters from Paradise'.

The die had been cast. I wrote to apologise to the university. There must have been thousands of other sagas played out in houses across the country, among people waiting for their letters to be delivered. I suspect Charlie would have appreciated mine, laced as it was with drama, excitement, political intrigue, and paradisiac Pacific islands. And what about Ardbear Sea Farms? We established it as a going concern, delivering fish all over the country, and then walked back through a series of open doorways leading, via a circuitous route, to the worlds of media, research and telling tales. And as for Tarawa lagoon, it gives me no pleasure to report that research in recent years has chronicled a steady decline in its marine environments. If only I could turn back the clock! What if?

©Peter Vine, 2021