The sail rail experience

Other work

After reading my thoughts about surface travel, a few people have asked about the sail-rail trip to London from Dublin. Here’s some very practical notes from my experience for people who are thinking of giving it a go. I tend to travel on my own, so the notes reflect that.



  • There are two companies that run ferries Dublin to Holyhead that give the sail rail option: Irish Ferries and Stena Line. For entirely personal grudge reasons I prefer to sail with Irish Ferries. My friends in London sail with Stena because they say the boats are nicer. They’re wrong.
  • Stena calls it Rail & Sail. Irish Ferries calls it Sail & Rail. Essentially you get a very cut price rail ticket to anywhere in the UK alongside your foot passenger ferry ticket to use on the same day as your sailing. Dublin-London on Irish Ferries is about €53 one way. Obviously you can go somewhere other than London – this just the route I know well.
  • Neither of the websites make it very easy to book. Stena only takes Rail & Sail bookings over the phone. Irish Ferries website sometimes defaults to just a ferry ticket while you’re booking online. I’ve been caught out a couple of times.
  • Having accidentally turned up to the port with just a ferry ticket a couple of times (see above), I’ve converted it to a Sail & Rail ticket at the desk there before checking in. It didn’t cost any more than booking it online.
  • Taking the Irish Ferries ferry that leaves around 8am from Dublin Port gets you into London Euston at about 4pm. Coming back you can take a train at about 9am from Euston and (all going well) get in to Dublin Port at around 5.30pm. You can check connecting train times on Trainline.
  • There are buses that do the same journey for a bit cheaper. They only do overnights, and only on certain nights of the week. It’s definitely not worth the saving you make.
  • I will never take a night sailing if I can help it. It’s beyond grim.


Getting to Dublin Port

  • I try to remember to check the sailing updates before I travel. If the weather is really bad they might cancel the ferry.
  • I usually take a taxi to Dublin Port. There is a bus from the city centre but at that time in the morning I prefer the luxury of paying for more sleep. Just make sure you tell the driver which ferry company you’re sailing with – they leave from different terminals.
  • They’ve recently reconfigured the route to the ferry terminals and it now seems like it would be a safer cycle.
  • They say to check in at the ferry terminal an hour before. 45 mins and even half an hour seems to be fine.
  • As an Irish citizen I think I just need photo ID like a driving licence, though I always take my passport just in case.


On the ferry

  • There’s two Irish Ferries ferries – the Swift and the Ulysses. There’s an outside deck on the Ulysses for some fresh air. It’s always nice to see the Poolbeg chimneys as you pass.
  • I aim to get a comfy bench seat on the ferry where I can settle myself in for the journey. Then I can lie down for a nap if I like. I never sit near the children’s playcentre.
  • In the winter the ferry can be cold, so I bring something warm to wear. It can also be noisy, especially if there’s a lot of families travelling with kids, so I pack earplugs.
  • I only ever travel with hand luggage that I can carry easily, but you can also check bags in. There’s no liquid restrictions etc. Yay!
  • Brexit means duty free on the ferry is back. Also yay!
  • The ferry is generally very stable. In bad weather it might roll a little. It never bothers me, but then I don’t ever get travel sick.


On the train

  • You don’t get a booked seat on the train. So if the train is busy I guess you risk having to stand. That said, I’ve never had to. But I don’t often get a seat at a table. All seats have a little flip down table that fits my laptop.
  • You can bring a bike on the sail rail. I’ve never done it but I’ve been told it’s essential to book a train space for the bike. There’s no extra cost but spaces are limited. Also the bike spaces themselves are very confined; a regular bike just fits, though probably not an e-bike. (Thanks Joe Noonan for the info.)
  • The train either goes direct or (more likely) there’s a change at Crewe and/or Chester.
  • The north coast of Wales is lovely. Sit on the left hand side leaving Holyhead for the best sea views. And the train goes by (and under) the very impressive 750 year old Conwy Castle.
  • Also it’ll pass over the Bridego bridge, south of Milton Keynes, which is where the Great Train Robbery happened in the 1960s.


Doing things and paying for things

  • I try to have a plan for LOTS of engaging things to do while I travel. I can’t stress this enough. Work, books, films, podcasts, craft projects, playing cards, etc. The longest journeys are the ones where I’ve ended up scrolling on my phone. They’re painful.
  • Beware relying on wifi. On Irish Ferries you get 20 mins free, and you can pay after that. On the trains wifi is free but not very good. I’m with Vodafone and there’s no extra roaming charges for using my phone in the UK (though in the middle of the sea there’s no service so I can’t hotspot anyway). Update: thanks to Sheila de Courcy for noting that there’s an area on the Irish Sea that turned out wasn’t covered by her roaming contract although she got signal. Cue terrifying bill. Be warned.
  • There’s sockets for chargers everywhere. Sometimes there’s even wireless charging points built into the tables on the trains.
  • I find that having Revolut is by far the easiest way to deal with sterling. You don’t ever have to have any actual currency, and they don’t charge an exchange fee. And you can use you card to tap on and off public transport in London. Win. (The only time you might need cash is in Bargains Galore in Holyhead – see below.)
  • Generally I find this way of travelling pretty tiring. I take naps when I can. I try to remember, and usually forget, to pack an eye mask. I don’t bother carrying a neck pillow. Roll up a jacket or something.


Eating and drinking

  • As much as possible, I bring food, snacks and drinks with me. It’s much nicer and I save a fortune. Even if I can’t pack my own lunch, I buy food somewhere far from the stations/ferry terminal as the quality will pretty much always be better.
  • I bring a refillable water bottle. Sometimes I bring a hot drink in a flask. I try to always bring a reusable coffee cup for when I buy takeaway coffee. And I smugly unwrap my toast and jam breakfast on the ferry from a beeswax wrap.
  • There’s no food in Dublin Port at 7am.
  • There’s a coffee dock and a canteen on board the ferry. Food is overpriced and very not good.
  • In Holyhead port there’s a small shop with package sandwiches, hot drinks, crisps and chocolate. If I have time, I cross the ugly chrome footbridge into Holyhead proper and go to the Coop supermarket – left on the high street.
  • The trains usually have hot drinks and snacks on board, and there’s station shops and cafés in Crewe and Chester.
  • In Euston there’s a M&S just outside the front that’s handy for stocking up on food for the return journey. But I try to get a fresh sandwich from some deli en route to the station.
  • There’s decent coffee from a stall outside the front of Euston by the big departures boards.


When things go wrong (and they do)

  • If I’m ever stuck for a long period at Crewe, Chester, or Holyhead, I go out and explore. So much better than waiting on a platform. Packing light helps for this.
  • It’s very hard to find things to love in Holyhead. But I do wistfully scout for pub grub, bleak takeaways and cafes when I’m stuck there for any length of time. Also, since I like my shops weird, dusty, and full of dated plastic treasures, I try to buy something from Bargains Galore. I think it only takes cash.
  • If your train is significantly delayed you can apply for a refund to Avanti West Coast who run the train from Holyhead.
  • If something goes wrong and you miss a sailing, you can sometimes get on the next sailing even if it’s run by the other ferry company. Not sure how reliable or official this is, but it has happened to me.
  • Worst case scenario: you miss the ferry back to Dublin from Holyhead and they put you on a night ferry. In that situation, I’d try to book a cabin asap. I’ve ended up trying to sleep on a sofa in an over-lit and under-heated ferry while drunk people shout around me. All night. It’s the pits. Alternatively you could see if they’ll put you on a morning ferry and try to book a B&B in Holyhead. I’ve never done this. It also sounds grim, but at least you might get some sleep.
  • Generally I’ve found that people who take the ferry are quite up for having a chat, if that’s your kind of thing.


Getting away from Dublin Port

  • I’m usually tired arriving back in to Dublin Port and it’s the worst part of the journey because the transport options from there are so poor.
  • If you have someone who can pick you up from the ferry terminal, that’s the absolute best (though make sure they know which company you’re sailing with so they go to the right terminal).
  • If you want a taxi you’ll need to book one on a taxi app to come out to the terminal because they don’t come without being booked. I book it as soon as I’m coming off the ferry so I don’t have to wait too long.
  • There is a Nolans bus that goes to the city centre for €3 that is old and decrepit, and sometimes it waits around if another ferry is coming in just after yours. So it’s hard to tell how long it might take. The driver takes cards and cash.
  • There’s also a Dublin Bus but I’ve never taken it since it goes all over East Wall before getting into the city centre.
  • As a very, very, very last ditch option (and if you don’t have too many bags) it is possible to walk from the terminal to the Luas at the Point in about 45 minutes. I’ve had to do it once after dark – not hugely recommended. Though walking in the Port is kind of fascinating if you’re into urban landscapes and aren’t too easily spooked.
  • Once I get home I fix myself a drink from my duty free spoils. At that point I usually need it.

Some creative unsticking

Design for performance

Unsurprisingly, Covid slowed down projects I was working on, and knocked some out completely. It also knocked my confidence as an artist – primarily because of the lack of regular creative work, a dearth of substantive contact with other artists, and having to adapt to new ways of working that weren’t always conducive to my creativity.

So it was a real pleasure recently to be able to finally air some ideas for a set design project that had straddled a lot of that Covid time, with a work in progress showing nearly two years after we first started talking about it. The Holding Bones project hit a load of bumps in the road, but the show was changing shape and bursting to come to life. And it helped keep me connected with some kind of creative life too.

I’ve known Niamh Lawlor of Puca Puppets for many years though we have never worked together. So I was pleased when in late 2020 she asked me to help design a production that was a bit of a departure for her. Even more so when I heard she’s also asked director Veronica Coburn and sound designer/composer Sinéad Diskin to work on it. Two women with strong theatre practices, who I respect hugely and hadn’t yet had an opportunity to work with.

The Holding Bones is a one woman show about death and about our connection with ancestors and family. It’s gentle and sad and funny. It’s written by Niamh about her family, and this was the first time she’d be working in this way, with a director and designers. She is a skilled artist and multitasker who is used to doing it all herself. She also has a long career as a deft puppeteer, and it was clear we should use her talents to help tell the story – even though it was adamantly not a puppet show. Or even a show with puppets.

We started out deep in early 2021 lockdown. Like many others, we were anxiously trying to figure out how to do our creative work via Zoom. Building up a meaningful artistic language between people working together collaboratively for the first time is a complex enough process. It turns out that doing it online dulls a lot of the organic, human connections that I didn’t even realise were going on in previous processes. How to do something meaningful and inventive and joyful and three dimensional while talking to small faces on a screen in my spare room. At the end of 2021 we progressed to meeting in a room, masks carefully on. My first time physically in rehearsals since autumn 2020. I found both these online and offline experiences unsettling and nerve-wracking. Was it obvious to everyone that I was off my stride? That I was struggling to remember how to think as a designer? That I felt a bit creatively shrivelled?

In the room together we had the time to play. I’d almost forgotten how. To not focus too much on the final product yet. To develop a visual and aural language that suited the piece, and that wove all of our aesthetics and ideas in. We played with paper and light and clay and music and drawings and yarn and voice and plastic sheeting and tinfoil and sound. We tried to find ways of populating the stage around Niamh with other beings. Veronica and I both wanted to see Niamh the artist on stage – a glimpse of her overcrowded workspace, her beautiful drawings, the way her hands make objects come to life. I didn’t have enough time. I felt I could have spent at least another week or two or more in this process of bringing the materials to life and finding out which ones would serve best.

By the time we did a work in progress showing of The Holding Bones in the Civic Theatre at the end of 2022, I had designed two full productions since Covid – Sing Your Failures and Hive City Legacy – and was feeling a bit more confident again in my creative abilities (though I still resist having creative conversations via Zoom). Niamh and Veronica had created an almost fully-formed show, and we had come up with a satisfying design that would allow for further exploration and development, should The Holding Bones get a further life. We felt it was in a very good state. It had been a slow road to get to this point and Niamh had put so much energy and work and inventiveness into the piece – I primarily wanted to make sure she was happy with how it had all come out.

In the Civic studio, on a wintery Saturday afternoon, Veronica and I talked the assembled audience through what they were about to see, how we had worked together, and our hopes for the future physical staging of the piece. And we sat back and watched Niamh weave her gentle magic over the people in the room.

I can’t honestly say that I feel fully creatively unstuck yet. At all. The last few years have been frustrating from that point of view. But doing things like playing with the team on The Holding Bones has kept me buoyed up enough to keep swimming into this new year.

One year later, red potholes


While on residency in Arteles Creative Centre in Finland last September I got to know the quiet dirt roads of the area by bike. The bikes available at the centre had no gears and only back pedal breaks, which made stopping on gravel surfaces challenging, and the rare downhill swoops felt specially daredevilish. The bikes had upright black frames and made me, in my black coat and jeans, feel like an Edward Gorey character pedalling through the open farmland surrounding the centre.

Cycling was a way to explore, and a chance to get some air after long days spent in my workroom. Having no gears meant I was forced to decelerate from the speeds I usually cycle in Dublin’s city centre. At first it felt hugely frustrating. I couldn’t get anywhere in a hurry. I waved at the few people and cars that I passed, and usually got a wary side-eye.

On those wide open flat landscapes you can watch the weather coming. I often found myself frantically pedalling to get to some kind of shelter – a bus stop, or a particularly lush tree – while heavy bluegrey rainclouds swooped at me over the open farmland. Another challenge was the pockmarked surface of the dirt roads themselves, with copious potholes from, I’m guessing, the harsh winters. Those bikes were not made for swerving, especially on gravel.

Over the weeks, thanks to the residency’s policy of no phones and limited internet access, I settled into the luxury of living at a more tranquil pace. I became happier with my slow cycling. I stopped trying to get anywhere, and started to just explore all the little back roads and woods nearby.

From my first days in Finland, I’d noticed many rowan trees laden with their distinctive red berries among all the silver birch. Irish and Finnish flora seems to have quite a lot in common – between the red rowans and the browning bracken, I felt at home.

Since my automatic impulse to find out more by tapping ‘rowan’ into a computer wasn’t available to me, I enjoyed my ignorance and settled with mentally saluting each rowan I passed on my slow bike.

Cycling back to Arteles one day during my last week there, I wove in and out of the gravelly potholes and imagined filling the holes in the road as a thank you to the centre, to the people living around it – knowing that even if I did the coming frozen winter would reopen those holes, or create new ones, or both. I began to imagine filling the holes with rowan berries instead – to make something beautiful and surprising for the people passing, and also to celebrate the futility of my trying to actually repair their road.

But by the time I’d had this idea, the majority of the rowan berries were already shrivelled or gone – the short autumn was already giving way to frost. I only managed to collect enough berries to test out one pothole, so when I left, I left instructions for next year’s harvest.

Foyle Punt design slideshow

Design for performance

In the scorching summer of 2018, Róise Goan invited me to be part of a great team of artists, making another performance with and about Donegal local stories and local people. The first time was with She Knit The Roof. This show was called Foyle Punt, after a particular kind of local wooden boat. As part of the show, we commissioned a boat to be made by the famous McDonald boatyard of Greencastle.

I got to spend some magical summer weeks in beautiful Moville, in the very far north of the country, with Caitriona McLaughlin, Darren Murphy, Little John Nee, Farah Elle, Jennie Moran, Lisa Mahony, Evie McGuinness, Brian Mooney, and the boatbuilder Philip McDonald who also performed in the show.

The highlight of my time there was spending a week as an honorary member of the Moville Men’s Shed as we (they) built the few set pieces. Lakes of tea, mountains of chocolate biscuits, and endless quiet slagging of my carpentry skills. Shout out to Hubert (standing on the right of this photo) for the best sarcastic eye roll on the island. I might have been offended if I could understand a word any of them said.

I won’t lie. Touring a show with a boat to 6 harbours in 10 days nearly killed us all. And what eejit decided that stones were an integral part of the design and had to tour with us? But on the plus side, I had biceps for the first and only time in my life. At the most difficult moments, we pursed our lips and said that at some point we’d probably look back at the experience fondly, forgetful dopes that we were. I guess this is that point.

And to be fair, when it went well it was absolute magic. I’ll always remember the day at Raghly harbour in Sligo, which is just about the most beautiful place you could imagine working. The weather was incredibly tranquil. We arrived in the van first thing in the morning, quickly mapped out how the show would be set up, set it up, stopping every once in a while to look at the changing light on Ben Bulben, did the show to a full house, fed the audience, took everything down in the dark, and only as we packed the van the wind picked up a little and we realised how differently our day could have gone if there’d been even a breeze.

We finished that night in the legendary Ellen’s pub, accidentally becoming part of a kind of wake for the ashes of the local writer Leland Bardwell, who was an old friend of my father’s.

Róise set up The Local Group as a way of making high quality theatre that is rooted in local stories, local history, local places and local people, and that the team making it becomes embedded in the local community. The fact that Foyle Punt and She Knit The Roof were both sell-out successes and attracted crowds from far and wide is testament to her vision. Fingers crossed that more excellent Local Group comes soon.

A month in Finland

Artwork, Other work

In September 2019 I was accepted on a month-long residency at Arteles Creative Centre in rural Finland. It was a magical time, that in retrospect has changed my life in a quiet way.

My stay at Arteles felt like it might be a stepping off point, but I don’t know yet where I’m stepping off to. I don’t usually make work on my own, so this was a challenge and an opportunity for me to see what kind of things emerged from myself alone. (The next challenge for me is to work out what to do with some of these thoughts and potential projects. What form they take, and where/how I can show them. That’s the hard part…)

I came with no specific project in mind and tried to listen hard and follow interesting thoughts as they appeared. I took photographs, I came across unexpected new friends, I made things with my hands and gave them away, I wrote things and kept them to myself, I drew things and burned the drawings, I cycled very slowly and waved at passing cars.

I thought a lot about hospitality, about obligation, about misremembered colours, about hugs, about being happily lost in translation, about rowan trees, about things in pairs. I tried to think about my brain from the inside. I tried to recalibrate how I think about the body that carries that brain around. I tried not to think about what to do with all these thoughts.

For the month we had no phones and limited internet, and being removed from the world was pure pleasure. It felt good to be among people who were always fully present. It felt good to be warmed through by the sauna. I was happily selfish and missed no one. I stopped reading the news, and haven’t started again. I ate too much smoked salmon. I saw the northern lights.

Being introduced to meditation and starting a daily practice gave me something new that I’ve taken into my Dublin life. The beautiful land, the changing clouds, and the little gravel roads around Haukijärvi are still in my thoughts every day. I’m very grateful for the lessons in how to be still and quiet and present.

After I came back I found it difficult to explain what I’d been up to for the four weeks. A friend said to me – you basically let yourself be an artist for a month. And he’s right, I did.

Two months in Paris

Artwork, Design for performance

I’ve been meaning to post this for ages, but only getting round to it now. Even though it was months ago, I’m still dreaming of my time on a wonderful two-month residency at the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris. Firstly, a huge thank you to the CCI for giving me the time there.

When I applied, I hoped for a chance to ringfence some time to be creative – something that I find very difficult to do with a dual career as an artist and a manager. In fact, the last time I’ve allowed myself to indulge (is it really indulgence?!) in reading, drawing, thinking, seeing things, and meeting people in such a dedicated way may have been at university. I’m talking about the turn of the century here, people.

The CCI residency itself is luxuriously simple: they fly you over, put you up in the beautiful building in the fancy 5th arrondissement, and give you a stipend of €700 per month to keep you going. I was also given access to my own studio (bliss) across the courtyard.

While you have to give an outline in your application of what you’d like to do, when you’re there you are left to you own devices, which is wonderfully freeing. And does feel like a luxury. It was an extraordinary feeling to be taken seriously enough as an artist to be supported in this way. For me, it means I take my own creativity more seriously too. Which I’m normally not great at.

And what did I do? A big part of what I’d wanted to do was get to know the city a bit better – I threw away 4 new pairs of socks over the two months, worn out with all the walking.

Towards the end of my time there I had a small panic that I’d not really done anything, so I started to make a list. Phew. Exhibitions, talks (given and attended), performances, books, music, countless excellent, thought-provoking chats. And lots of time in the studio, sitting staring out the window, writing, drawing, and (a little surprisingly) painting.

One result was a series of simple portraits on cardboard. Not sure where it’s leading me, but it was really, really refreshing to just try things out with no ultimate agenda. Another small revelation for me was to understand the imperative of safe-guarding the time I need to transition from the ‘admin’ way of thinking to the creative way of thinking. A hugely valuable lesson for me. Now the trick is to find a way to transpose some of the creative, relaxed, invigorating Paris energy into Dublin life. Fingers crossed.