Northern exposure reveals complex reality of Border for people on both sides of the divide
Caution is a hallmark of Border dwellers in response to questions of identity
The one uncontentious fact about the 300-mile Border that divides Northern Ireland from the Republic, running from Muff in Donegal to Warrenpoint in Down, would seem to be that it is there.
However, Don Brolly, a drinker in the Central Bar in Lifford, Co Donegal, across the bridge from where the Border starts in Strabane, Co Tyrone, insists: “As far as we’re concerned, there is no Border. The Border doesn’t exist.”
These days, the first signal to motorists that a border has been crossed is that speed limits are indicated in miles in Northern Ireland, but in kilometres in the South. Then there are the red postboxes, prices displayed in sterling, and stickers such as the one in a cafe window in Strabane that reads: “Breastfeeding welcome here, supported by the Health Promotion Agency for Northern Ireland.”
Shirley Russell owns the Pagoda Flower kiosk in Strabane. “When you’re living so close to the Border, you work with all sides of the community,” she says. “We’re still all Irish. The Border doesn’t make any difference. But I imagine it’s more expensive to live in the South.”
Patrick McDonald lives in Newry and is on business in Strabane. When I met him during a tour of the Border some weeks ago, he wanted to talk about Rory McIlroy. “It’s been as clear as day since the day he started golfing that he’s going to play for Britain. He’s described as being from ‘Northern Ireland’, not ‘Ireland’. Otherwise he’d be carrying the Tricolour and he isn’t. Obviously, he’ll play for Britain.”
Martin McHugh is looking at shoes in the Look Foot shoe shop on Strabane’s main street. “I’m from Letterkenny in Donegal, and Donegal is part of northern Ireland,” he says. “It is. It’s the most northerly part of Ireland. I call myself a Donegal man first, and a northern Irishman second. That’s the way a lot of us would see our identity.”
At the adjoining villages of Pettigoe/Tullyhommon, the Border is somewhere in the Termon river that divides North from South. On one side of the bridge, there’s an Ulster Bus 194 stop to Enniskillen; on the other, derelict buildings are painted in the green and gold of the Donegal county colours.
Roscommon-born sculptor Dara Hand moved to Tullyhommon 16 years ago with his wife, painter Alison Britton, who is from Lisbellaw, near Enniskillen. Together, they run the Cowshed gallery and cafe in the village.
“Our main reasons for choosing to live in the North were the health services and education,” Hand says. “And property prices were another reason. Even 16 years ago, people were looking for crazy prices in the South compared to what we could buy in the North.”
After 16 years, he considers himself more Northern Irish than Irish. “I have more in common with people here now than in the South,” he says.
Hand considers that there is a “marked difference between those living either side of the Border”.
“People in the North are a wee bit more cagey,” he says, eventually. “The Border doesn’t really exist in people’s minds any more. The real border is religion and the culture you were brought up in, as a Catholic or Protestant. I live in the Protestant north, as we call it, but I don’t practise any religion, and we choose schools for our children based on reputation, not religion.”