Fintan O’Toole: Five books to understand the Irish Border
Essential reading: From bleak pictures at border towns, to the threat of a return to a raw and recent past
Borderlands: A disused border post near Newry. Photograph: Getty Images
In All Silver and No Brass: An Irish Christmas Mumming, his wonderful study of traditions in County Fermanagh, on the northern side of the Irish border, the US anthropologist Henry Glassie evokes in a few sentences the terror of the early 1970s, when the Troubles were at their worst: “People at work on their farms in the soft green Fermanagh countryside have been suddenly, brutally murdered. You never know when the next stranger on the street will be a bitter bastard with a gun. The nights are lonely. The wind howls cold on the streets.”
It is a bleak picture, but it serves in Glassie’s book as a backdrop to the sweetness and energy of the people whose lives and culture he studied. To read the book now is to be struck, not just by what people in this uncertain region endured for so long but also by the endurance of decency and of fun.
People in these places didn’t ask to be borderers and most of them didn’t want the complications and suspicions that came with the partition of Ireland a century ago. And they certainly don’t want bitter bastards with guns coming back to their streets and farms.
To understand why they fear the return of that raw and recent past, a good place to start is with the beautifully etched stories of Eugene McCabe, who has spent most of his 88 years as a small farmer right on the border, while writing extraordinary plays and fiction. The title of a collection that brings together his best short fiction, Heaven Lies About Us, is both straight and ironic. McCabe’s work pulses with a love of the hills and lakes, with the intense sense of place that somehow transcends political and religious divisions, and with the almost Elizabethan English of the south Ulster dialect. But there is nothing heavenly about the pressure exerted by history on the frail humanity of his characters. No one else captures so well the sense of entrapment that comes from being pushed right up against the edge.
A more literal mapping of that psychological and physical pain is in Susan McKay’s Bear in Mind These Dead, an austere and moving exploration of the lives of those who lost loved ones in the Troubles. McKay is a wonderful listener: the book is largely about recording the voices of the people who would otherwise be the shadows of statistics, the human remnants of deaths soon forgotten by the media and politicians. It would be good if the politicians who think disturbing the peace in Northern Ireland is a price worth paying for a pure Brexit would read it and, in their consciences, look these people in the eye and tell them so.
Two great accounts of following the border itself, published 30 years apart, chart how things have changed with peace. Colm Tóibín’s Bad Blood: A Walk Along the Irish Border (his first book retitled) was written in 1987, when the Troubles seemed as if they could go on for ever and the border was heavily marked and militarised. The prose is exquisite and the tone often warm and funny, but the mood is unavoidably desolate.
Garrett Carr’s The Rule of the Land: Walking Ireland’s Border came out last year but describes a journey just before the Brexit vote brought back all the old fears. It, too, is haunted by history and violence, but Carr is much more hopeful than Tóibín could afford to be. His is a place that appears to be settling down, coming into its own. It matters greatly that his book does not come to seem a mere record of a short period between the wars. –Guardian