The Border’s unofficial maps and crossings

Cartographer Garrett Carr has drawn maps of the Border that ignore political divisions and instead chart how people in the region interact with the landscape

Sat, Jul 12, 2014, 01:00

Maps have an air of authority about them: they have always been a way of defining territory, setting out the lie of the land. They chart how things are, or how they seem to be at the time; they have a claim to objective truth, factual reality.

But Irish map-maker and author Garrett Carr doesn’t see it that way at all. While his maps are just as precise and scientifically correct as any official publication, Carr’s passion is for charting unexpected connections across space and time, chance encounters, fictional locations.

He describes his work as a kind of “optimistic cartography”, an antidote to stark and divisive political maps, with their crude fragmentation of orange and green. More than that, it’s a way of seizing the world and tracing a different path through it, marking his own footsteps, making it new. “An individual can take on an entire landscape,” says Carr, “they can claim that power.”

For The Map of Connections, Carr travelled the length of the Irish Border, seeking out unofficial crossing places. He went mostly alone, and on foot, though on the last stage, along the Foyle water system, he paddled his way by canoe with his friend, the artist Paddy Bloomer.

Carr set himself the rule that to qualify for inclusion on the map, the crossings – stepping stones, gates, stiles and so on – had to be previously uncharted, not found on any other map, and still in use. Making the map meant witnessing at first hand a landscape that is normally thought of in symbolic terms, as opposed to an actual place.

For the most part, it was a long, lonely journey. “I spent about two months on the Border in total, camping out and slowing making my way from east to west. I thought I would meet people, but actually it was very quiet. It reminded me of the Eastern bloc border with Germany, that narrow strip running right down the middle. Political turmoil had preserved it, and it was the same here. My abiding impression was of nature run wild. In the absence of anyone to talk to, I found myself reading people by the signs they’d left behind, it was like the archaeology of the recent past.”

One of the strangest structures Carr came across was a big steel bridge, standing in the middle of nowhere, with no clues to its origins or function. On another occasion, he found himself on Cuilcagh Mountain, on the border between Co Cavan and Co Fermanagh.

“There was an enormous bit of blanket bog, beautiful and desolate, and I was just following a wire fence across it. The Border is almost always attached to something; it rarely just goes across a field. There’s usually a wall, or a hedge, or a stream, or a fence. But this time I felt as far from other people as you can possibly be.”

Human connections

Later, on Holywell Hill near Derry, Carr met a farmer in the process of making a footbridge across the stream that constituted the Border at this point. (As he points out, two thirds of the Border is water.) In the course of conversation it emerged that the farmer’s son had married a woman from just over the Border in Donegal and he was building a walkway between the two farms. “That was a very romantic connection,” smiles Carr.

There was also plenty of time for thinking about the nature of the land he was walking, and its place in the public imagination. “There’s a dichotomy at the heart of the Border,” says Carr. “It’s about division, staying on your side of the line. But it’s also a place to meet, for difference to interface. There’s always that instability about it.”