When you read Colm Tóibin’s 1987 book, Bad Blood, there is a scene when, staring at the guestbook in a Fermanagh hotel, Tóibín sees two guests sign their nationality as British. “They were from Omagh, they talked with Omagh accents. How could they be British?” As someone who grew up in the town, I found this scene amusing. I can attest to the Britishness of the small town 30 miles from the border with the South. This isn’t to call it a unionist town. Like many towns across the North, there is a combination of Protestants and Catholics living in relative harmony. Officially, however, the town is designated as British. Yet, despite being relatively far from the border, the frontier that divides Northern Ireland from the South was a constant presence growing up. I remember as a child waiting for my dad to come home from Pettigo, a one-horse town on the edge of Donegal, that he would visit every few months to buy cheaper diesel.
Since the end of the Troubles in the late 1990s, the border, you might have thought, would have faded into insignificance. Territorially significant, but geographically irrelevant, the story of the two Irelands, North and South, seems to have moved on from any dispute about the dividing line between them. Britain’s decision to leave the EU, however, following the referendum last June, upended that wishful thinking. After weeks and months of debate about sovereignty and immigration and regulation, 56 per cent of Northern Ireland voted to remain while 44 per cent voted to leave. Conspicuous by its absence, however, was any real discussion of the status of the border post-Brexit. That debate and discussion is still to be had. What Brexit might mean for the border, and for the communities North and South who live along it, is anyone’s guess.
In 1987, Tóibín travelled the nearly 400 kilometre stretch of the border, from Derry to Newry. The blurb of my copy of Bad Blood, the cover of which is daubed with a splotch of red, describes the route as “one of the most dangerous strips of land in Western Europe”. Speaking to The University Times, Tóibín recalls his sense of being a foreigner, an interloper, in these communities: “What I decided to do in the book was to not go on about myself. Not give any version of who I was or where I came from, because I just didn’t see any reason for that, and so I was a camera, and I went, and I was recording. In other words, I recorded what I saw and heard, and left it at that, and I suppose the problem was I had no prejudices in a place that’s filled with them”.
“It’s another example, in case we need one, of how little Northern Ireland matters to anyone in Britain. So, we’re stuck with it now”
He travelled it by foot, seeking out the dark, divided towns and villages along the border at the height of the Troubles. At the time he undertook the journey, Bloody Sunday and the hunger strikes were over. The Enniskillen and Omagh bombings were yet to come. It was a world where the thought of a ceasefire, let alone peace, seemed laughable.
This peace, however, is now threatened by Brexit as the border once again dominates the future of Northern Ireland. “The last thing anyone needed in Northern Ireland was a discussion over their constitutional affairs”, Tóibín says. “No one in the world would claim it was a campaign run with Northern Ireland in mind. It’s another example, in case we need one, of how little Northern Ireland matters to anyone in Britain. So, we’re stuck with it now.”
With this in mind, I set out to retrace Tóibín’s steps along the border, 30 years later. Planning my route, I decided upon something much less ambitious than Tóibín’s adventure. Rather than the snaking, twisting route from Derry to Newry, I devised a lopsided pentagon, which would take me from Omagh to Derry, then on to Enniskillen and Belleek, over the course of two days. I also decided that driving, rather than walking, was a more efficient way to see the country. It was a decision I’d come to regret over the course of my journey. Not because I missed the scenery, or because I avoided the mud and rain, but because I lost the easy intimacy Tóibín was able to foster over a pint with the locals he met on his route.
As I made my way into Castlederg, a town only a few miles from the border, I was greeted by numerous Union Jacks strung up on flagpoles. The town was busy and well kept, with old men and women trooping up and down the street from shop to shop. The first café I stopped in took euros and the waitress told me that they often get visitors from the South. My entry to the town was certainly less dramatic than that of Tóibín’s. In the book, he describes a scene in the middle of the town: “As I stood on the street I was approached by an RUC patrol. A very young policeman got out of the front of the car and another out of the back. As the young man asked me for identification, the other one crossed the street and pointed a rifle at me, directly at me, while I rummaged through my rucksack”. I wasn’t sure where to go or what to do when I got there. Like Tóibín, I was aware that the town is strictly divided between Catholics and Protestants. Stopping to ask for directions towards Castlefinn and the border, I got into a conversation with a local man about Brexit. The sectarian divide, he told me, is only cosmetically hidden in the town. Yet it is not as violent as it was during the Troubles and the large Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) barracks, which was owned by the North’s old police service and which still hovers over the town, is to be sold off. There wasn’t much to see at the border, he said, and nothing to really indicate where the North ended and the South began. He was sceptical about whether a hard Brexit was possible – if they couldn’t police it during the Troubles, how could they police it now?
There wasn’t much to see at the border, he said, and nothing to really indicate where the North ended and the South began. He was sceptical about whether a hard Brexit was possible – if they couldn’t police it during the Troubles, how could they police it now?
I was curious about how unionists saw the border, so I called up local councillor Tommy Kerrigan, from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), who Tóibín also spoke to, to hear his thoughts. In the original book, he paints a dark portrait of a community under siege: “People are just living, wondering who is going to be next, what’s the next move, whose funeral is to be the next one.”
His party, the DUP, supported Brexit. As I spoke to him, and as I went about my journey, his party leader, Arlene Foster, was facing calls to resign for her part in what became known as the “cash for ash” scandal. Only a week after I left Northern Ireland, headlines around the world were filled with warnings that the peace process was over. Foster had refused to resign and an election was called after the Northern Ireland government collapsed.
For his part, Kerrigan didn’t believe Brexit posed a threat. “I don’t think Brexit will mean any different, because the border wasn’t sealed when trouble was high in Northern Ireland and when that was there they weren’t able to seal the border, so I can’t see there will be any hardening frontier to restrict people coming in.”
He visits the South quite often, he tells me, and feels a lot more comfortable there than he used to. I told him I’d spoken to people who were scared about such a prospect. “If there is a hard border, well, people of the area have to live with it.”
Driving from Castlederg to Clady, a small one-street village at the edge of Tyrone, passing into the South, and then back into the North again, I could feel a certain sympathy with the views of then-British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, who in 1914 described Tyrone as the “most damnable creation in the perverted ingenuity of man”. The place, with hundreds of routes that lead into the South and back again, is a cartographer’s dream and a unionist’s nightmare.
The EU and Theresa May’s government have no idea, Tóibín says, how “easy and porous” the border is and “how easy it would become to bring any set of goods, or indeed people, over from one side to another”.
“If you walk that border, I think you do get an idea of it as ludicrous”, he says.
On my way into Clady, I parked up for a minute to get my bearings. I could see the village in the distance and beyond that, a stretch of green that I couldn’t place as the South or North. I met a man and his wife, who told me I was in Donegal. The man remembered well the checkpoints that surrounded Clady as well as the well-organised smuggling operations that been a constant feature of a hard border. Reverend Ian Paisley, the famous firebrand unionist preacher, had wanted to build a wall, he said, a bit like Donald Trump today.
I kept driving into Clady, watching the clouds darken overhead. The roads twisted and turned and not for the first time I was grateful that I, unlike Tóibín, had chosen to drive. On his route, he’d grappled with an old Michelin road map of Ireland, which often failed to take account of roads that were blocked or bombed. My route, mapped out on the Satnav in front of me, was thankfully free of such obstructions.
In the book, the owner of The Smugglers’ Inn, one of the two bars in the village, told Tóibín that the village was 100 per cent Catholic. I doubt this has changed today. A tricolour hung overhead as I strolled through the village and a sign above my head read “PSNI: People Should Not Inform”. A small filling station, the tiny off-license and the small shop huddle together at the bridge separating North from South. Despite growing up less than 30 miles down the road, I got the same feeling I had in Castlederg – that I was a stranger and, what’s worse, that it was obvious. I had wanted to speak to the owner of The Smugglers’ Inn, which had been a victim of many an attack on the border by the IRA and which is less than 100 metres from the pub. But, at midday on a Wednesday, it looked quiet and closed so I contented myself with tea and biscuits in Kirk’s Bar just up the street. Talking to two locals, they told me that Clady, hemmed in by the border, is the only place in Ireland where you can’t be born and laid to rest in the same county. Villagers are born in Derry and buried just across the border in Donegal. They still remember having to pass through the checkpoints every Sunday on the way to Mass.
A tricolour hung overhead as I strolled through the village and a sign above my head read “PSNI: People Should Not Inform”
Brexit frightened them, although one had refused to vote in the referendum, citing a reluctance to fully commit to supporting Sinn Feín’s position. The town had just recovered from the Troubles, a new school had been built, they said. Trade passed through the town now and the small village was no longer an island, trapped between two competing sovereign states. Checkpoints, they said, would only attract people with a violent agenda.
I strolled through the village again and walked along the bridge where the border had been and where checkpoints could be introduced again. Margaret Thatcher once said that Northern Ireland was as British as Finchley. Looking out across the wide banks of the muddy river Finn, where I could look out into both the North and the South, I thought about how she’d obviously never been to Clady.
Strabane and Derry
I drove on to Strabane, not sure what to expect. It was a town I’d often driven past but never really explored. For years, it had one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe, with over 50 per cent of adult men without a job. On top of this, it was one of those notorious towns during the Troubles where IRA support was incredibly high and the security presence overwhelming. Tóibín writes in Bad Blood about an “overwhelming sense of despair” in the town. Catholic youths were harassed by the security forces while in the 1970s the IRA “had blown the town to bits”. Today, as part of the newly expanded Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, it technically had a Protestant mayor and was bustling with shoppers and businesses. Still, there is a proud nationalist streak to the town. The sign for the town’s mainstreet was accompanied by a translation in Irish. Across the river, yards from the Sinn Féin constituency office, a massive version of the Proclamation covers the gable wall of one of the buildings. It is another one of the border towns that had been redeveloped since the Troubles, largely as a result of an open border and the benefits of trade. Just across the border from Lifford, a large, 24-hour Asda attests to the economic benefits an open border brings. On any weekend, you can see the cars with southern registrations that have taken a spin across to make the most of the “bargains”.
By the time I got to Derry, my intended destination, it was getting dark. The Christmas tree was still up in Guildhall Square and from the famous Derry Walls you can see out across the Bogside and Cregan estates to where Bloody Sunday occurred in 1972. It was in Derry I met writer and journalist Darach MacDonald, who’s just finished a book in which he walked along the old canal route across Ulster. MacDonald, I soon find, isn’t a fan of Tóibín’s book. “I think it has become the prevalent views of an area that is now known as borderlands. It portrays a dark, sort of ominous picture of the place and the people. And it’s unrelenting in its darkness. I think he buys into the whole, well, at the time, it was called genocide idea, of border Protestants being wiped out. There was absolutely no evidence for that.”
“He buys into this idea that there are two almost autonomous communities living on an interface and when you cross from one to the other you’ve crossed into somewhere else. Any of us who have grown up on the border know that when you get there, there is no ‘there’”
“He buys into this idea that there are two almost autonomous communities living on an interface and when you cross from one to the other you’ve crossed into somewhere else. Any of us who have grown up on the border know that when you get there, there is no ‘there’.”
I brought up writer Eugene McCabe, whose work Tóibin drew heavily on for the book. MacDonald, it turns out, is a nephew of McCabe’s, and his brother speaks to Tóibín in the book. “[Tóibín] wrote quite extensively about Heritage, which is one novella which Eugene wrote as part of the border trilogy. There was Cancer, there was Heritage and there was Siege. He just did Heritage, because that suited his view.”
MacDonald’s felt that Tóibín failed to understand the border because he’s not from the area: “It would be like me going down writing about Enniscorthy, where he comes from. I wouldn’t have the faintest idea about what Wexford is about, I wouldn’t get it by selecting the people I wanted to speak to, because they might agree with my views.”
There is no agreed or fixed narrative around the border, he says. “What I tried to do was convey the notion that there is no homogeneous border, that this is a shifting element that has been in the room for a hundred years and we have failed to recognise or acknowledge the elephant in the room, in a way that understands what it is like to live in a community that has been wrenched away and divided and put at peril.”
When I put this criticism to him, Tóibin says he went investigating the North exactly because this darkness was undeniable: “I think this is a place where a great number of murders had been occurring. Everywhere you went. I mean, you started in Derry and no matter what you did, you had Bloody Sunday. And as I was going along that border with Fermanagh, members of the UDR [a regiment of the British Army] were being killed. And no matter where you went. I was a journalist and I wasn’t writing a travel book about the sweetness of this landscape.”
Seamus Heaney, educated just up the road in St Columb’s College, famously wrote that “whatever you say, say nothing”, and this is perhaps part of the problem with Brexit and the border. British politicians have ignored it and a now-governmentless Northern Ireland doesn’t seem prepared to discuss it. In the 2016 book, Unapproved Routes, about the history of the Irish border between 1922 and 1972, Peter Leary writes that during the early years of the border “farmers’ fields and shopping trips became the stuff of diplomatic relations”. Once Brexit begins properly, back roads and contested streams might again make a reappearance in diplomat’s dossiers. MacDonald is pessimistic about the future. “There is absolutely no question that you cannot have anything that disrupts the free movement of people and goods is bad for people on the border. And the idea that you can negotiate with Britain, would be even capable of negotiating a deal that would allow for an open border here, is nonsense.”
On my second day, as I set out from Omagh, politicians and public figures seemed less willing to speak to me. Eamonn McCann didn’t return my call and the local councillors I contacted all seemed reluctant to get drawn into a piece on border politics and Brexit. As I walked through Enniskillen, past Arlene Foster’s constituency office, I realised why all politicians had suddenly disappeared into the undergrowth. If you were in the DUP, you were in hiding. Every other party could smell blood. They were on the offensive.
As I walked past Arlene Foster’s constituency office, I realised why all politicians had suddenly disappeared into the undergrowth. If you were in the DUP, you were in hiding. Every other party could smell blood. They were on the offensive
Enniskillen is another town that has benefitted from the opening of the border and a giant Asda looms over the town in the same way as it does in Strabane. In 1987, the town was run by Sinn Féin, which meant it was in no danger of bombings. The RUC and UDR, Tóibín wrote, “some of whose colleagues had been victims of the IRA”, were forced to take orders from the party’s councillors. In 1987, however, after Bad Blood was published, the town was a victim of a bombing by the IRA on Remembrance Day, killing 11 people and wounding 68. When I ask Tóibin what might have changed today if he did the same journey, he refers to this particular bombing: “If you start at the beginning and went right around, one night someone will tell you something, and staying up late with people, getting their trust, just hanging out with people, from that, someone will tell. We sort of know who did Omagh, but we don’t know who did Enniskillen, we don’t know who did Bessborough.” There are still untold stories about each killing, “festering” beneath the surface of Northern Irish society: “If you walked at night you could suddenly find that the ghosts were walking.” I didn’t stay too long in the town. I walked past the Remembrance Day memorial, where the bombing occurred but there isn’t much to see. The only evidence of darkness in the town was the result of a power cut, which saw shops across the town close early and forced drivers to navigate without traffic lights.
I drove out to Belcoo and Blacklion, two small towns separated only by a long bridge. Once again, there is no grand ceremony crossing from North into South. The only thing to signal that I’ve moved into a separate country is the sign for An Post outside the local newsagents. Blacklion, with it’s British-sounding name, is best known for chef Neven Maguire’s restaurant. It was closed for renovations so I dropped into the local butcher. He didn’t seem to want to talk but told me he’s concerned about Brexit. His business might be in the South but he lives just across the border.
The town has already been the victim of its position on the border. The uneasy exchange rate has taken a toll on the newsagents, which is set to close. I get the sense, from speaking to a few locals, that they feel betrayed by Britain. They didn’t have a vote, they had no say in how the border might change, and yet a voter in southern England has suddenly up-ended the stability and calm of the communities whose lives and jobs are tied up with a short stretch of land that separates North and South.
There is a radical solution to the new challenges posed by Brexit. Ireland, Tóibin suggests, could leave the EU too: “I think there’s nothing to be gained for us from staying in the European Union, except a cultural thing about our identity as Europeans.”
Ireland, Tóibin suggests, could leave the EU too: “I think there’s nothing to be gained for us from staying in the European Union, except a cultural thing about our identity as Europeans”
“When your biggest trading partner goes, God, what are you going to do about that? People think: ‘Oh, all is fine, companies are going to come to to Dublin.’ Yeah, some of them are, but the whole issue is, for example, every supplier, every supermarket, bookstore, you walk up and down Grafton St and O’Connell St, shopping streets, shopping malls, and every single thing you touch has made it’s way through England”, he says. The concern is that Ireland, left on the outskirts of the EU, will become “one of those funny, left-over places in history”.
I moved on to Garrison, a small town where Tóibin stayed during his journey. I called into the hostel where he stayed but no one there can really remember the Egyptian owner, Edwin, who features in the book. The town is small and quiet with a beautiful view across Lough Erne and over into the hills and fields of Leitrim. I talked to a woman on the shore. Most people in the town, she said, had voted to remain. By this, I think she meant the Protestants had voted for Brexit. I was surprised to hear she knew the book, and intrigued when she told me he’d made some mistakes. The fishing competition, she said. In the book, Tóibin writes of a conversation with a local woman who claims to have it on good authority that that year’s winning fish hadn’t been defrosted when it was caught. Old wounds, it seems, take a long time to heal on the border.
By the time I get to Belleek, I’m tired and starting to realise why Tóibín spends so much of the book in various pubs. Driving from place to place, let alone walking, is exhausting. From Blacklion to Castlederg to Derry, the towns, villages and cities are all joined by the same siege mentality, no matter what side of the border they’re on. Circumstances change, history moves on, but the border seems to remain a constant fixture on their horizons. If the North and the South are to rise to the challenges that the new relationship brings, they might need to remember what they have already survived.