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Anthony J Quinn: 'Border is a line on a map, but it's also the story of us'

Crime author Anthony J Quinn recalls his experiences of growing up near the border in Tyrone and reveals what he hopes to achieve as the new Cavan writer-in-residence

Anthony J Quinn
Anthony J Quinn
Anthony Quinn (second from left) pictured in 2013 with fellow stars of the Northern Ireland arts scene Nathaniel McAuley, Pauline Burgess, Jan Carson and Kenneth Gregory
Anthony’s daughters Aine, Lucy and Olivia reading books in a tree-hut
Anthony with his siblings — he is the eldest boy on the right

By Anthony J Quinn

Getting lost in maps and enchanting books were my favourite forms of escape. In fact, most of my adventures as a boy growing up along the Irish border began by reading books and studying maps, especially those that hinted at trespass and rule breaking.

I could cross the frontiers fenced off by my strict Catholic upbringing in south Tyrone and imagine all the things it was impossible or too dangerous to do during the Troubles, when going for a walk anywhere was inseparable from the sensation of being sighted along the barrel of a gun.

There's more mystery in lands that are hard to reach, and I found myself drawn to the portfolio of Ordnance Survey maps that straddled the Irish border. I'd lay them out on my bed at night and trace the wavy black line of the border as it rose up and down through Ulster, like a line drawn by a nervous map-maker or perhaps a very sleepy one.

I searched for lines that linked the North and the South, most of which were thin and blue, the web of rivers that fed the loughs and bog lakes of drumlin country in Tyrone, Monaghan and Cavan. The thought of all this water pouring through the border felt somehow comforting at a time of endless bombing and shooting, the sense of secret wildness and meandering connections in a divided landscape.

I pored over maps and books, and dreamed of escaping, but somehow I remained rooted to the spot, in my home parish of Killeeshil, about a 10-minute car journey from the border at Aughnacloy.

By staying here, raising a family and writing novels, I've managed to lift my childhood landscape out of the darkness of the past. The trees and rivers I played in as a boy with my brothers and sisters live on in my children's world, their familiar sounds and sights translated into new stories and adventures.

However, my children think I grew up somewhere else, in a grim terrain of checkpoints and military hardware, armed men in camouflage greens, bulletproof vests and balaclavas. They've never noticed the border, which runs so invisibly close to their lives, and they've never been able to locate the stories of the Troubles in their own landscape. The border has existed more as folklore, and in the crevices of the past, until June 2016, and then it was as if the border suddenly fell from the sky again, or, rose up like something long buried, unbidden and with a disturbing new force.

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I'm still dreaming and finding my way through books, and writing every day sometimes feels like crawling on your hands and knees in the darkness of a labyrinth.

This summer I've been made Cavan writer-in-residence, a post funded by the Irish Arts Council and Cavan County Council. The word 'residence' comes from the Latin root 'residere', which ironically means to stay or remain (given that we seem to be on the verge of Brexit) and paradoxically I'll be doing the opposite, criss-crossing the border and visiting writing and reading groups across Cavan.

If the Brexiteers get their way, I'll be standing at some point in the residency with my toes and heels over a political and jurisdictional brink. Looming in my mind are Patrick Kavanagh's words from his poem Epic: "I have lived in important places, times where great events were decided."

Already, the residency feels like a form of literary refuge or asylum. However, I'm hoping that words and stories won't be an escape from these troubled times of Brexit, but rather a way of re-imagining them and the border itself. Long before we had maps and their multitude of lines, we had stories through which we knew our place in the world and could project our fears, loves and memories upon the landscape.

The thorn-hedged fields of my grandfather's farm in south Tyrone all had Irish names, and there was a story for each one, even the most rush-filled and marshy. Their names described features in the landscape, trees, rocks, rivers, or events that took place there. Sitting over a turf fire in his little cottage, he used to repeat them to me after saying his evening rosary, their strange Gaelic names joining up and rhyming to make a compressed poem that was also a map, one of countless memory maps that with the dying of his generation have sadly disappeared up the darkness of a chimney flue.

The border is a solitary line on a map, but it's also a story, the story of us as we move alongside and across it in our innumerable journeys, a story imbued with personal and cultural memories, a story that we share inside and between ourselves, and marks us as separate from the rest of the people living on these islands.

We should think of the border as a perimeter that organises itself around our journeys and our lives, rather than the other way round, that all our journeys are stories plotted by the landscape, and that just as previous generations have had to do, we will find our way again in the Ulster landscape that we call home.

My five Inspector Celcius Daly novels are set along the Irish border, while the latest, The Listeners, is set along the Scottish border, a setting I chose because it's the only other place I've lived in for more than four seasons. The books are crime novels, but they're also about borders, physical and imaginary, as they exist in our souls, our culture and our lives.

Borders grip the mind and propel the imagination. To cross a border is to enter into a new or forbidden landscape that has the power to change and teach us something about ourselves. Borders provoke a sense of wonder and fear, and define the edges of lost or secret worlds, offering sanctuary to fugitives and weary travellers.

In a strange way, I feel blessed to have lived so close to borders for most of my life. During the Troubles, the Irish border was a geographically inescapable fact of life. But in those days, every police or Army or paramilitary checkpoint felt like a dangerous frontier, one that had to be crossed sometimes several times a day. I still remember the apprehensive silence in the family car when we passed through these checkpoints, none of us daring to look back to see what it looked like on the other side. We just stared straight ahead. I often wonder what we would have seen had we looked back.

I remember the imposing military sangar at the Aughnacloy border crossing and how it dislocated the landscape, but was also part of it, seeming to change colour according to the weather and how close you were, dark and shadowy when you drove beneath it, and shiny and green in the rain and sunshine.

Today, when I look south from my home in Killeeshil to the high, dark blue hills tantalisingly hiding Monaghan and Cavan, I think of the new border that is approaching with Brexit, the one that has been in progress for three years now, but is still shrouded in mystery.

When I start making my trips to readers and writers in Cavan I'll be thinking of my grandfather and his lost fields, the ghost of Patrick Kavanagh entering what he called the 'fairyland' of his familiar fields, and the solitary black lines on maps that define the places where we escape to in order to find ourselves.

It's a short hop from where I live to the border at Aughnacloy, but in some regards it will be the longest journey I've made. Along the way, I'm hoping to rouse some sleeping giants in the Ulster landscape that will help re-imagine the landscape of the border.

That our shared stories and enduring inner landscapes will consign to irrelevance the quick political fixes and populist furies of Brexit, and help those of us living around the border to see ourselves as part of a web of crafted words, literary inheritance and common landscapes. A web that stretches into the past, but also opens into the future, and will make the difficulties and divisions of these times disappear in the blink of a literary eye.

Anthony J Quinn's latest book is The Listeners, published by Head of Zeus, £18.99

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