April Book of the Month: The Border by Diarmaid Ferriter

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The Border - The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics
by Diarmaid Ferriter
Published by
Profile Books

Review: Marcel Krueger

It's quiet as I cross the border. The Enterprise emerges from the granite flanks the Gap of the North, for a moment there is the small grey hulk of 17th-century Moyry Castle visible to my left, and then the train chugs into the fields and hedgerows inside the Ring of Gullion. I've slipped into the North. While there is no visible sign of it, there is always a moment however that indicates the division between the Republic and the United Kingdom: when the phone networks change and the onboard wifi skips for a moment. A few phones across the almost empty carriage of the afternoon train start beeping, but that’s the only indication of a chance in jurisdiction. I could pay my tea in Pound or Euros all along the way anyway.

As I write this, the ship of fools that the House of Commons in Westminster has become is with every day producing new proof that as a parliament it is no longer functional and increasingly declaring its own bankruptcy over the issue of Brexit, and as Professor Tanja Bueltmann put it on Twitter: 'As a historian I am fascinated by watching a democracy dismantle itself.

As an EU citizen I am worried about what is happening to my home. As an observer I am facepalming basically every minute now. Never forget: everything that is happening is a *choice*, not a requirement.' And one of the things that is, unsurprisingly, seemingly confusing the British parliament is the border on the island of Ireland, the one I cross so often, quietly, on the train. If they would have time in between voting down any constructive motions for any progress, I would make historian Diarmaid Ferriter's latest book mandatory reading for every single Westminster MP. It's a small book, just 184 pages, but it concisely and understandably lines out the history of the Irish border from its creation in the 1920 Government of Ireland Act to the present day with (or without) its Backstop.

In 7 short chapters, Ferriter charts the negotiations between the Irish revolutionary government and the British Crown that lead to the Anglo-Irish treaty (and subsequent civil war in the south) and the creation of the border; and the often bizarre details of its inception, for example that the newly created border in Silesia between Weimar Germany and the new Polish Republic served as one of the blueprints for the Irish one. From then on he (literally) follows the border and its political implication for the leaders in Dublin, Belfast and London over the next decades, into the conflict in the North and how the subsequent opening of the border as part of the Good Friday Agreement helped overcome division and sectarian hatred and slaughter.

But this book is not purely historical or political non-fiction. Ferriter also weaves in voices from all areas of society and what the border meant and means for them, and how much the two countries on this island are interconnected: there's the Irish Football Association/Football Association of Ireland and Gaelic Athletic Association history of a divided and yet united Ireland (in sports at least) and the perspective of writers and poets; like Eugene McCabe (who's farm driveway crossed from Monaghan into Fermanagh) describing the borderlands as a '"dim, hidden country, crooked scrub ditches of whin and thorns stunted in sour putty land; bare, spade-ribbed fields... housing a stony-faced people living from rangy cattle and welfare handouts... To them a hundred years was yesterday, two hundred the day before."' And then, a few decades on, there's also the man who owns a bridge across the border and decides to plant his chip van smack-bang in the middle, avoiding taxes North and South. As Ferriter puts it, when referring to the shared commemoration of the Irishmen who fought in World War I: 'Such attention to inclusive commemoration, alongside the peace process and the sense of an "invisible" or "soft" Irish border, greatly improved relations between North and South; ultimately, up to 30,000 were travelling over the border each day, and that was convenient and valuable for both jurisdictions.'

What's most striking in this book is the crystal-clear analysis of past and contemporary blunders especially in London. The last few pages addressing the implications of Brexit on the Irish border are interspersed with recent quotes by English politicians who seem to have unlearned everything that should have been the lesson of the almost 30 years of conflict in Northern Ireland followed by twenty years of peace. It hurts to read these bon mots of buffoonery collected in one place, and Ferriter's analysis sadly only increased the clinching of my guts and the fear of what mini-Trump Boris Johnson or the living cartoon Jacob Rees-Mogg might do if given free reign over politics that have a direct and immediate impact on the communities on this craggy island.

But there was, it seemed, a return to the politics and and ignorance of the past over the course of next two years as a succession of clownish Tories revealed the depth of their ignorance and contempt when it came to Ireland, none more so than Boris Johnson, foreign secretary from July 2016 to July 2018, who embarrassingly suggested the invisible boundary between the London boroughs of Camden and Westminster as a possible model for a post-Brexit border.

Ferriter has no solution for the dilemma of Brexit, but ends his book with a quote by Benedict Kiely, 'the most that can be hoped  for is that all Irishmen will some day learn to view the past without passion, ...'

The next time the House of Commons suspends its sitting amidst a crisis that has implications for millions of people because of a leaking roof or sewage leak, every single MP should a) receive a slap with this book (as I said, its relatively small) and then read it. The border with its past tragedies and current hopes must stay open.     

***

Wherever possible we recommend that readers of Elsewhere buy their books from a bricks and mortar bookshop or direct from the publisher.

Marcel Krueger is the Books Editor of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place. His writing has been published in numerous places both online and in print, and he is the author of Babushka’s Journey: The Dark Road to Stalin’s Wartime Camps (I.B. Taurus, 2017) and the upcoming Iceland: A Literary Guide for Travellers (I.B. Taurus, 2019). You’ll find him on twitter here.


Bishop's Pool: A Poem

By Ciarán O'Rourke:

This poem has roots 
in the sea, and time: 

in Bishop's Pool, when 
we slipped the plunging sun...

and let the wrack-
blue waters 

haul and hold, com-
pletely plumb 

our bodies' bird-boned, 
drifting shiver

down to the merrow 
dark below, 

where breakers 
breathe

and the green foam 
drops 

a hundred ways
to shadow: yes, 

dropped and spilled 
our names afresh

as salt, and sand,
and a wind awash

with things we bring 
to the sea's flame,

which now (and 
every wanting season) 

lay claim 
to us again:

five shipwrecked 
mountains, dreaming mist, 

the cuckoo's eye, 
the brimming nest, 

the latch in the voice 
and lift of pain, 

the flit of a swallow
in a flense of rain, 

the wave in the blood 
and the swimming stone

that flows and falls 
by breath alone – 

like the ghosts we knew
on given nights,

soft as seals 
in the soundless light.

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About the author: Ciarán O'Rourke was born in 1991 and is based in Dublin. He has won the Lena Maguire/Cúirt New Irish Writing Award and the Fish Poetry Prize. His first collection, The Buried Breath, is published by Irish Pages Press (November 2018).

The Library: Hard Border – Walking Through a Century of Irish Partition, by Darach MacDonald

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Read by Marcel Krueger:

The Automobile Associaton of Ireland's 1962 handbook contains six pages of guidance for people planning to cross the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. There are 18 approved roads with customs posts, and the AA warns that vehicles were liable for customs duty and purchase tax upon entering Northern Ireland, requiring motorists to 'lodge large sums of money at the frontier' or avoid doing so by providing a so-called 'triptyque' passbook for stamping at frontier crossings. The border section closes with a warning: motorists crossing on unapproved roads are 'liable to very severe penalties, including confiscation of [their] car.' Customs post also only had limited opening hours and late-night crossings incurred an additional fee of 2 shillings, usually paid in advance.

The slow train wreck of Brexit and the connected question of the future of the only land border between the European Union and the UK has in recent years increased the interest in the history of Irish partition and the 499 km-long frontier between the Republic and Northern Ireland. Countless TV and print reports have investigated it, the border now has its own darkly funny Twitter account, and there has been a loose series of books about the border as well, first and foremost Garett Carr's 'The Rule of Land' (2017), which follows the author's trek from Carlingford Lough along the border to Lough Foyle. Darach MacDonald's 'Hard Border' is the latest addition to the loose canon of Irish border books, but this one zooms in a bit deeper than most. Despite the flashy cover which seems to indicate a more political look at the potential of a 'hard' border, instead this is a deeply personal look at the history of the border, and 'hard' here could also mean 'deadly'.

MacDonald is a veteran journalist hailing from Clones in County Monaghan, and has written extensively about his home country and the border, most recently in ' Blood & Thunder: Inside an Ulster Protestant Band' (2010). For this later border-book, he walked the 75-kilometer route of the now-defunct Ulster Canal, which was completed in 1842 to link Lough Neagh to the Erne system but proved unsuccessful, was outstripped by the railways and the subsequent partition of Ireland and finally closed in 1932. Even though there are plans to develop a greenway along its banks, to date most of it is neglected and overgrown, which forces MacDonald through dense undergrowth and on many detours – which is almost synonymous for the tangled history of the Irish border which he encounters. Following the canal from Castle Saunderson to the Moy, the author explores both the drumlin landscape and the history of the last 100 years in the border heartlands, where five counties meet: Cavan and Monaghan in the Republic and Fermanagh, Tyrone and Armagh in Northern Ireland. Here, the border shifts and snakes around villages and roads, forming loops that almost become enclaves and exclaves (and will cause many a Brexit headache): for example, there are eight roads in and out Clones in Monaghan – five of which run into Fermanagh.

Walking this convoluted border give MacDonald the chance to dive deep into the political reasons behind partition and also to chart the violence that spilled across the border from both sides: from the Irish Civil War over the so-called border campaign of the IRA in the 1950s to the horrors of the Northern Ireland conflict between 1969 and 1998. And it is the latter which results in the strongest parts of the book, when MacDonald talks about the horrendous tit-for-tat killings that he witnessed, often perpetrated by neighbours and members of the same community:

The terror persisted and lapped to and fro across the border, as with the abduction and murder of Ross Hearst of Middletown in 1980. The 52-year old father of five was taken at gunpoint outside a friend's house in Tullylush, back near where the Monaghan Mushrooms plant stands today. His corpse with four bullet wounds was dumped at Wards Cross, a short distance away on the border. [...] Seamus Soroghan of Monaghan town was later convicted of the murder. Yet no sentence could allay the trauma of the Hearst family, which at the time of the father's death was still mourning the 1977 killing of his daughter Margaret Ann Hearst, a 24-year-old-single mother of a 3-year-old child, and part-time soldier in the UDR [Ulster Defence Regiment].

As an outsider from Germany, the Irish border and its effect on the communities it historically divided and still divides often reminds me of the Berlin Wall, which had similar seemingly random nooks and crannies that meant division and death for their inhabitants. There is the 'Entenschnabel', the Duck's Bill in Glienicke/Nordbahn, where a GDR neighbourhood along one street was enclosed by West Berlin on three sides, or the Eiskeller, where three West Berlin farmer families could only get to the city along a small road four metres wide and 800 meters long. And while the Irish Border was not as tightly sealed as the Berlin one, it was at least as deadly and meant similar arrangements for those affected by it. At the height of the Troubles, the five roads out of Clones into the North were closed, and just a single main route across the border remained open in the area, and any traffic wishing to pass had to go through a full military checkpoint, often resulting in long delays - and at the height of the IRA’s campaign in the 1970s and 80s most smaller lanes leading from that main road across the border were spiked, blocked with concrete blocks or blown up by the British Army.

There's a lot of fighting and killing in this book, but this is no over-proportionate for the slice of Irish landscape and history it analyses – the terror, after all, was real. This is not a lighthearted romp, but also not a hopeless one. There's plenty of positive stories, like the history of the Leslie family of Glaslough and their (in)famous parties, or the stories of local entrepreneurship (like the aforementioned mushroom plant) that were made possible by the opening of the border after the Good Friday Agreement 1999. MacDonald is apprehensive about the potential impacts of Brexit, and rightly so, as his fine mix of memoir and history in 'Hard Border' properly put the border and its effect on the local communities into perspective. The only thing lacking is a detailed map, which would make it easy for those encountering the pitfalls of the Irish border for the first time to trace its weird loops – and a timeline would also have helped.

But otherwise, this is a fine journey through the history of the Irish border heartlands, filled with affrays, danger, hope, a soviet in the Monaghan Lunatic Asylum and Oscar Wilde's sisters, burning to death on Halloween. I can thoroughly recommend it to both newcomers to the Irish border as well as veteran border writers and walkers. And especially to Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Hard Border is published by New Island and is available through their website or from any independent bookshop.

The Joy of Bookshops: Roe River Books, Dundalk

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A return to our irregular series, featuring some of our favourite places in the world: bookshops. Today, our books editor Marcel Kreuger pours over the shelves of the wonderful Roe River Books in Dundalk, Ireland:

Like libraries, independent bookstores to me are safe places. There is, of course, a materialistic aspect to their existence, but I’ve not yet encountered one merely dedicated to cold hard cash. Instead, independent bookstores are places where book lovers, amateur historians, budding poets and the local writing group can meet, browse and order (obscure) books, and talk everything literary with likeminded humans. And that might apply for small-town bookstores even more than to those in the metropolis.

Roe River Books is such a place. The only independent bookstore in Dundalk, the capital of County Louth in the Republic of Ireland with roundabout 30,000 inhabitants (and my chosen hometown), Roe River Books is the brainchild of Tom Muckian, book lover and thespian in his free time.

Roe River Books is my second stint as a bookshop owner. I ran the imaginatively titled Dundalk Bookshop from 1987 to 1992, before becoming a planning and design consultant. In 2007, a client asks me to survey the building which housed Carroll’s Educational Supplies, an institution in Dundalk where generations have bought their school books. My client informs me that he’ll likely be selling the business on after the summer season. I half-jokingly say to him not to sell it without talking to me first and thirty minutes later, I have a book shop again.

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Roe River Books still sells schoolbooks (crucial in a small town like Dundalk) but that does not mean that the range is shallow. Tom, a huge fan of thrillers and the fantastic (especially the books of John Connelly), stocks a broad range of classics of the occult like Lovecraft, Bradbury and King and, of course, a lot of Irish Noir like Connolly, Ken Bruen or Stuart Neville. Fitting for a ‘town bookshop’, local interest also plays a huge role.

We sell quite a lot of local historical publication – people are always interested in the history of their street or direct neighbourhood, and so we are also always willing to stock independent or self-published books by local authors.

Tom sees an independent, brick-and-mortar shop as the antidote to the fast, consumption-orientated world of online (book) shopping, as place to linger, a place to appreciate the magic of books. No wonder that Roe River Books self-identify as ‘luddite booksellers’:

The Amazon River is the longest in the world and its online namesake seems to want to take over the world. The Roe River once held the record as the shortest river in the world. I like the idea of being the polar opposite of that online giant. We may not have every book in print but we might just have the one you need.

Come May this year, Roe River Books will move into an even bigger premise a few houses down the road that will even offer a coffee dock (one of the best smells in the world, coffee and freshly printed books) and potentially an expanded programme of readings, acoustic concerts and readings groups. And it will still remain a safe haven for book lovers from everywhere.

You can find Roe River Books online here, and in the real world at 77 Park St, Townparks, Dundalk, Co. Louth, Ireland.

Borders and their consequences: Introducing 'the corridor'

Image: Vera Drebusch

Image: Vera Drebusch

The Corridor is a new project from Ireland exploring borders and their consequences. One of the founders of the project is the Elsewhere Books Editor Marcel Krueger, who we asked to introduce the project and the first events and actions that will be taking place in the coming months:

Who needs borders anyway?

For a year now, my wife Anne and I live in Dundalk in Ireland. We moved here for a variety of reasons: to live and work in a smaller town away from the molochs of Berlin and Dublin (where renting out has become impossible anyway), to live by the sea, to be close to my office. We knew that we would be moving next to one of the main Brexit-faultlines, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The longer we live here, the more we've become fascinated with the history of our new hometown and worried about what the future might hold for the communities north and south of the border. As a writer & journalist and a curator & arts manager coming from a country which was defined by a border for several decades, we now want to explore the area through both our fields of expertise, and have created 'the corridor'.    

'the corridor' is an interdisciplinary and discursive project that which explores borders and their political, social and cultural consequences through a series of public talks, screenings and exhibitions. With artists from all fields, historians, sociologists, contemporary witnesses and other experts we want to discuss the history of the Irish border and the future challenges of the upcoming EU border for this area. Our first event series is a collaboration with the 1. Deutsches Stromorchester (1st German Electrophonic Orchestra), and you can find more details on our website. Coming events will include a fish dinner with fishermen from both sides of the border initiated by German artist Vera Drebusch, and an exchange about walking borders between Elsewhere editor-in-chief Paul Scraton and Irish writers Garett Carr and Evelyn Conlon. 

To paraphrase Jan Morris, if race is a fraud, then nationality is a cruel pretense. There is nothing organic to it. As the tangled history of the corridor between Belfast and Dublin shows, it is disposable. You can find your nationality altered for you, overnight, by statesmen far away. So who needs borders anyway?

The Library: Wherever the Firing Line Extends - Ireland and the Western Front, by Ronan McGreevy

Read by Marcel Krueger:

One of the interior decoration staples of many an Irish pub, or really any self-proclaimed 'quirky' beerhouse between Norway and Sardinia is the 'On this site in 1856 (or 1768 or 1699) nothing happened'-sign. There is no statement more untrue. Even though the events that took place near the sign over the last centuries may have gone mostly unrecorded in written or oral history, it does not mean that all the love stories, tragedies, atrocities that occurred there have never happened. For this exact reason, I am an advocate of memorials, regardless if they are large Victorian stone slabs in public parks, small blue plaques on buildings or even smaller, unobtrusive ones like the German Stolpersteine dedicated to the memory of Holocaust victims or the Last Address plaques in Moscow remembering the victims of Stalin's purges in the 1930s. All these memorials and monuments help us to view both the past and the present in context, to provide details and names of happenings long ago that we would have otherwise passed by without thought.

Ronan McGreevy has done a similar thing in his book: through a framework of site-specific memorials, all accessible today throughout southern Belgium, the north of France and Germany, he paints a picture of the actions of Irish troops on the western front in World War I. Beginning with the first shots fired at Casteau in Belgium to, incidentally, one of the last 1918 actions near Mons (where a marble plaque remembers the 5th Royal Irish Lancers) just 12 kilometres from that first engagement. Printed in hardcover and enhanced with black-and-white and colour images as well as maps for most chapters, the book is structured along both the British troop movements and the memorials that came after. Some chapters focus on specific military actions and the units involved, like the railway station at Le Pilly and the 2nd Royal Irish Regiment; others focus on single soldiers, like poet Francis Ledwidge (remembered by a plaque from 1998 near Passchendaele) or Robert Armstrong, a World War I veteran who became the head gardener of the Valenciennes military cemetery after the war and who died in a German prison camp in 1944. One story and chapter that stood out for me is the story of the Iron 12, twelve Irish prisoners executed by the Germans after being caught hiding with Belgian civilians.  

Despite that fragmented approach, the book manages to provide an excellent overview of the Irish involvement in the British campaign 1914 - 1918 in contrast with the Easter Rising in 1916 and republicanism at home. As McGreevy puts it in the introduction: 'It is perhaps the great paradox of Irish history that more Irishmen died fighting for the Crown than ever died fighting against it.' Sometimes the fragmentation of the chapters however seems to lead McGreevy slightly astray, and in just a few paragraphs we cover decades and move from the detailed description of an action on the ground over to events in Ireland many years later and just barely find our way back to the actions on the western front. Also, due to the wealth of details presented in here the book will mainly appeal to amateur historians and other World War I enthusiasts.

And yet the strength is the concrete interface of occurrence and memory expressed as memorials, and their connection with the landscape. The writing is strongest when McGreevy explores the sometimes hidden or unobtrusive location of the memorials and their equally unobtrusive history and changing political significance, from the small plaque at Mouse Trap Farm to the large Island of Ireland Peace Park in Messines, opened by Irish president Mary McAleese, Queen Elizabeth II and Belgian King Albert II in 1998.  

'Wherever the Firing Line Extends' can be used as guide book on the ground, and at the same time is a fine addition to the canon of publications on the double identity of the Irish soldiers in World War I. While the book is focusing on individual stories in the face of industrial scale slaughter, it is the new approach of appreciating the memorials later generations left for these men that makes it a refreshing read. After all it is for us, the living, that these memorials exist. They remind us not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

About the reviewer: Marcel Krueger is a writer, translator, and editor, and mainly writes non-fiction about places, their history, and the journeys in between. His articles and essays have been published in the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, Slow Travel Berlin, the Matador Network, and CNN Travel, amongst others. He has translated Wolfgang Borchert and Jörg Fauser into English, and his latest book Babushka's Journey - The Dark Road to Stalin's Wartime Camps will be published by I.B. Tauris in 2017.

Poetry of place: Chalybeate, by Evie Connolly

IMAGE: Evie Connolly

IMAGE: Evie Connolly

Chalybeate
(from a visit to Gorthaclode)

Do truths find their way home? Are there
imprints left behind from centuries before, when
smoke and steel drove paths beneath
amaranthine skies, through rolling forests
ablaze with oranges and golds? The spa well
spills its secrets into the pools of colour
collecting in the millrace and along the weir and
in the trout streams. 

In the shadow of a blasting furnace, iron water
was collected by the bucketload and pilgrims
soaked in the chalybeate spring. The
Gorthaclode Spa was hailed as miraculous
before events and circumstance dissolved a
ritual into history and stories were hidden in the
rivers and streams.  

Does a landscape summon its stories home?
Does an element return to its source over and
over?

Sitting along a pathway at Gorthaclode are
wagons loaded with steel as they wait patiently
for an old railroad to return to life. Sharing a
history with the crystalline rock birthed in the
soil and pulled home by the lodestone buried
in the hills, is this celestial metal merely finding its
way home and are we merely the transporters?

Evie Connolly lives in County Waterford, Ireland. Her poetry and short stories have been published in various literary journals and anthologies.