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.


The Library - Babylons on the Black Sea

Fleet of whalers lying up in Odessa port:    RIA Novosti archive   , image #171693 / Vsevolod Tarasevich /    CC-BY-SA 3.0

Fleet of whalers lying up in Odessa port: RIA Novosti archive, image #171693 / Vsevolod Tarasevich / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Odessa Stories, by Isaac Babel (Pushkin Press, 2018)
Black Sea – Through Darkness and Light. Dispatches and Recipes, by Caroline Eden (Quadrille, 2018)

Read by Marcel Krueger:

In the foyer of a hotel in Romania’s capital Bucharest a few years back, I struck up conversation with a group of English travellers. We talked about our travel plans, and when they heard that I was going to the Black Sea coast they told me to ‘watch out for the fireworks across the water’. The year was 2014, and the conflict in the Ukraine had just exploded into full military confrontation. I was saddened by that remark, as it made me realise that potentially a trip to Odessa was out of the question for the foreseeable future.

Odessa. Does that name not have a lovely ring to it? It speaks of the south, of spices and rum delivered via steamer, of gefilte fish and spices, of dark harbour taverns filled with sailors and farmers speaking a lovely mishmash of Russian, English, French, Greek, Turkish. These are all stereotypes of course, acquired over many years of never properly researching the city, only ever imagining what it must be like. To this day, Odessa and the sound of its name to me remains one of the last untainted travel ideals from my youth.

I was therefore delighted to discover that the Pushkin Press was re-issuing the stories of one of the city’s most famous sons, Isaac Emmanuilovich Babel. Babel ( 1894 — 1940) was a Jewish-Russian writer, journalist, playwright and revolutionary and is best known as the author of Red Cavalry, his fictionalised account of his time with the 1st Cavalry Army of the Red Army during the Polish-Soviet war of 1920, published in 1926 . Babel was born in Odessa, and the melting pot on the Black Sea had a lasting influence on his art: his Odessa Tales collection of short stories was first published in Russian in 1926. The stories shine a spotlight on Odessa roughly between 1900 and 1920, on its criminal underbelly and the life of the large Jewish community in the city. The tales gathered in Odessa Stories (a re-edition of Pushkin Press’ 2016 edition) contain the original stories in two sections entitled Gangsters and other “Old Odessans” and Childhood and Youth and also 2 more in a section entitled Loose Leaves that were not part of the original collection. Babel’s juicy prose has been newly and delightfully translated by Boris Dralyuk.   

The collection is Babel’s unflinching but tender look back at his hometown, stories about gangsters, merchants, pogroms and the antics of foreign sailors. The city however always takes centre stage:

In summertime, its beaches glisten with the bronze muscled figures of young men who live for sports, the powerful bodies of fishermen who aren’t much for sports, the meaty, potbellied and jolly trunks of “merchants”, alongside pimply and scrawny dreamers, inventors and brokers. While some distance from the wide sea, smoke rises from factories and Karl Marx does his usual work.

Odessa has a terribly poor; crowded and long-suffering Jewish ghetto, a terribly smug bourgeoisie and a terribly reactionary City Council.

Odessa has sweet and wearying evening in springtime, the spicy aroma of acacia trees, and a moon overflowing with even, irresistible light above a dark sea. 

Reading Babel’s tales today does of course nothing to dispel my ideal of Odessa, and while I will forever wonder what more stories the NKVD bullet that killed Isaac Babel on 27 January 1940 robbed us of, I am thankful that he created this wonderful snapshot of his home.

A fine complement to Babel’s fabulous tales is Caroline Eden’s Black Sea, linking the Odessa and the Black Sea of Isaac’s time to ours.  This travel book follows Eden’s journey from Odessa via Romania, Bulgaria and Istanbul along the Turkish Black Sea coast all the way to Trabzon in eastern Turkey. Her dispatches are interspersed with traditional or contemporary recipes from each of the regions she visits, or literary recipes based on some of the characters she encounters. This a beautiful book. From the lovely shimmering wave cover designed by Dave Brown over the exquisite images of both food and place to Eden’s flawless prose, it was a delight opening it and delving in.

Here Caroline Eden talks about Strandja, the mountainous border region between Bulgaria and Turkey:

Often, the edges of countries are rooted and fixed – a border crossing, a fence, a sea – here, demarcation is unfathomable. All we had were rustling oak woods as far as the eye could see, shaken by land winds and sea gales, all washed with a slightly Turkish climate and a southern, eastern air. It was a beautiful but befuddling landscape, a ‘terra incognita’ in our over-mapped world.

But sadly, the more I read the more I discovered that this book tries to be too many things at the same time, which diminished my enjoyment a good bit. The ‘dispatches’ are wonderful and induce both wanderlust and longing for all the places on the Black Sea that I visited before, but I feel that this is a book that should be stuffed into hand luggage and be read, dog-eared, on a bus trudging from Odessa to Bucharest. But due to format and heavy weight this is out of the question. For a coffee table book there are too few images, and for a book of recipes not enough of those. For me the recipes more interrupted the reading flow between dispatches than enhance it. Ideally, this is a great book for an armchair or kitchen stool traveller; but it sometimes stumbles over its own fragmentation.

That being said, the two books make an ideal pair for a Luftmensch like me: again fuelling my imagination of the Babylons on the Black Sea, their salt air and fried anchovies and kompot glasses. Maybe one day I’ll visit.

Wherever possible, we encourage readers of Elsewhere to purchase books directly from the publisher or via your nearest independent bookshop.

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.

Postcard from... Cafe Leopold, Mumbai

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By Marcel Krueger:

In the sweaty humid madness of the cyberpunk city that is Mumbai, where 60-storey skyscrapers rise into the night sky behind crumbling British colonial buildings and where men with typewriters and computers sit in little wooden booths offering letter writing and translation services on the streets, Café Leopold has been haunted by generations of foreigners. Lonely Planet calls it a ‘clichéd Mumbai travellers’ institution’, and it features heavily in Gregory David Roberts’ 2003 novel ‘Shantaram’, about an Australian hiding from the authorities in Mumbai and a staple in the literary diet of backpackers coming to India – they even sell it at the counter in the café.

The café itself however does not seem to live up to its reputation. Its small entrance is almost completely immersed in the tourist infrastructure of the equally touristy Colaba Causeway, the main street of this southern Mumbai neighbourhood. It’s flanked by small stalls and shops selling trinkets, fake jewellery, smart phone covers and T-shirts, and only the two security guards wearing ‘Leopold’-T-shirts at the entrance give it away (and check your bags for dangerous items). What I like about the place is its matter-of-factness. Despite being in business since 1871, there is no European café grandeur amidst the languid air pushed around by the many ceiling fans on the ground floor, only Indians and foreigners, backpackers and businessmen who come here for cheap food, cakes and cold beer.

Maybe it is this matter-of-factness that made it one of the targets in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, when the attackers sprayed the café with bullets from their AK-47s, killing ten guests and injuring many more. Some of the bullet holes can still be seen in the walls, between old beer advertisements and Pulp Fiction posters. Café Leopold defiantly re-opened only four days after the attack, and I for one believe that cold beer and cake will always beat terrorists and their bullets.  

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?

From the hills above Frigiliana, Andalusia

IMAGE: Marcel Krueger

IMAGE: Marcel Krueger

By Marcel Krueger:

I guess it was worth it, schlepping my overweight, 39-year old body up the hill. I had set out early in the morning and walked through the valley of the Higueron river, with the white houses of Frigiliana disappearing to my left and the Chillar ridge rising up to my right. Then I huffed and puffed up the 400-meter hill, and now sit on a stone on top of the ridge, with the brown and green flanks of the Sierra de Enmedio rising into the blue sky, early bees are busy around me in the morning sunshine, and across the Mediterranean I can see Africa through the haze. But as this is the Anthropocene, there is also the surf of the nearby coastal motorway soundtracking it all.

Before I make my way down the hill and to breakfast again, I wonder what a Castilian foot soldier might have thought, when stomping through the same hills hunting for Moriscos, descendants of Muslims under Castilian rule who were in rebellion in the 16th century. Probably the same thing foot soldiers have thought from the Crusades to Auschwitz: 'The man paid me for it, so best get over with it'.