Belfast Telegraph

The border is a magical, living place... we can't let Brexit turn it into a no man's land

The line dividing Northern Ireland and the Republic has been contentious since partition, but in his new book Garrett Carr, a creative writing lecturer at Queen's, finds an area of untapped tourist potential

We've had many years to get used to Ireland's border in its benign form: just a line on a map. The border gives shape to Northern Ireland without squeezing it too tightly. Its main role might be to operate as a kind of visual placeholder, making the map of Northern Ireland into a tidy logo, six counties arranged around the axis of Lough Neagh.

On the ground, the border is invisible and we cruise across it unimpeded. We are required to make no more effort than the small mental adjustment from miles to kilometres.

But now Brexit has unsettled us. We worry that the border will be an afterthought in whatever deal London and the EU arrive at. Theresa May says she wants the next manifestation of the border "seamless" and "frictionless", but the devolved parliaments will not have much of a say in how that happens.

It feels rather ominous that our representatives will only be getting (back?) into their Stormont offices on March 9, the day Article 50 is triggered.

The return of patrols and export duty is threatened along the border, and we are all learning terms like 'customs union' and 'common external tariff'.

We are realising that the invisible border was never an ongoing certainty. It was just a twenty-year blip, a short deviation from the main story: a defended frontier.

"We're going to need the border again," wrote Tyrone comedian Kevin McAleer after the Brexit vote, "if anyone can remember where we left it."

I grew up near the border, in Donegal, and remember how it was tied up with security and associated with smuggling, suspicion and danger.

We knew exactly where the line was in those days.

I was a schoolboy, but I'd travel into Northern Ireland with my father sometimes. He would go silent as we approached the Army fortress overlooking the road.

I remember the guns, crackling voices on CB radios and the cold sensation of being assessed and processed.

But you did not have to be worried about guns or bombs to find the border troubling, it was also a personal confrontation. Crossing the line seemed to challenge one's identity, asking who you thought you were and where you thought you had business to be. Where, exactly, the border seemed to ask, does your sense of belonging end?

This was a difficult question, and perhaps why my father was silent. Such angst was a high cost just to get cheaper white goods in Strabane, although for our family it was worth it.

The border was also confrontational for those going the other way, and some did not start crossing it until after the Good Friday Agreement. I've met such travellers in Donegal. I remember one couple with a wide-eyed look about them, like they had just pulled out their refrigerator and discovered an extra room hidden back there all along.

As they explained - and I'm sure it was a common experience - it was not anxiety about the Republic of Ireland that put them off traveling before, it was the border; the checkpoints, the car-jackings on the news. They did not want to go near the line.

Those threats are gone now. I recently returned to the border and instead of hurrying over the line, in a hurry to get away, I walked it lengthways, east to west, taking many weeks over the journey.

I was interested in the border's recent history, but also its deeper past; hiking to prehistoric tombs as well as smuggling trails and the sites of military installations.

My journey was a form of research; I didn't expect to appreciate the border in touristic sort of way. Yet that is what happened, and it was one of the biggest surprises about my journey.

The opening up of the border has revealed many fascinating areas. I find myself recommending places along the borderline like I'm on commission (which I'm not, by the way). The border's lakes and waterways seem under-appreciated, such as Melvin and Lough Foyle.

Cuilagh Mountain could probably get a lot more visitors too. It is a three-mile-long ridge, well suited to play frontier, and is a great hike.

The Cavan Burren is also special. Here, thousands of years ago, people used stone slabs and boulders to build tombs and walls, and now it is one of the most archaeologically significant sites in Ireland.

There is a kind of confrontation in these stones; you are forced to downscale your sense of yourself, for a while anyway, and this is probably no harm. These tombs can give perspective, but they sit mostly ignored, among the trees.

There is no car park and nobody to give you a guided tour. The Cavan Burren straddles the border and such things are only beginning to develop now.

It will take time for south Armagh's border to gain a Troubles-free image. The area does have a great draw in Slieve Gullion; a mountain with a particularly affecting presence.

Walking the border meant I was, for a few days, caught in its orbit. I noticed local people glancing up at the mountain a lot too, perhaps using it to calculate the afternoon weather, or just to remind themselves that they were still at home, that they had not wandered too far from their base rock.

There are a number of routes up the mountain, and local initiatives promote them for visitors.

"It's all opening up around here now," a Jonesborough businessman said to me - a few months before the Brexit vote - clearly pleased to see me in my hiking boots.

Slieve Gullion's peak is a place of legends; a pile of rocks with a passageway into the centre was the home of a goddess called Calliagh Berra.

The reality, that this is a 5,000-year-old passage tomb built to align with the sun on winter solstice, is even more startling.

Gullion is surrounded by small hills, and many were topped with military watchtowers during the Troubles.

The towers are now gone and the hills can be rewarding climbs in themselves.

"Many of our panoramic viewpoints are highly recommended by British Military Intelligence," it says on the website of a local hill walkers' group. I found military remnants on one peak, sections of tubing cracked with age, odd planks and iron hoops.

There was once a watchtower on the neatly conical hill west of Forkhill. The steep sides are covered in spruce and ferns and it's rather pretty. I was told about a path to the top, but I missed it and would have to rate my route to the peak challenging.

I couldn't find out the name of the hill either. I went into a pub near the base and asked a customer. "There's no name on it," he insisted.

In Donegal every pile of rocks has a name, so I found this surprising.

I wondered if I was experiencing another Troubles remnant; a borderland caginess that emerges in the presence of strangers. Tell them nothing. When the army claimed the hill they called it Foxfield.

Brexit won't lead the deployment of soldiers along the frontier, but customs posts and spot-checks will once again make the border a place of examination and, perhaps, self-examination.

So, it turns out that my exploration happened during a fragile time, soon to end. It will be a shame if the borderline must be found again, so shortly after it had gone transparent.

The borderland could and should be something intriguing to the people of Northern Ireland, a living place, rather than just an unsettling obstacle or simply a place to be avoided.

  • The Rule of Land by Garrett Carr, Faber & Faber, £13,99

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph