Soft border: Brian Langan on A Border Station and Married Quarters
Remarkably, for a book written more than a quarter of a century after its predecessor, the sense of continuity is immediate
Shane Connaughton: pays tribute to the decency of our forebears
My father once told me a story about my grandfather, a customs officer based in Dundalk in the 1950s. The border then was an obstacle for some, but for others it was an opportunity, and smuggling was rife, both on a large and a small scale. One day, a woman arrived on foot, travelling south. It was a cold day, and she was wearing a bulky coat and a long skirt. My grandfather knew her to see, and invited her in to warm herself by the blazing fire in the day room of the customs post. She was reluctant, but common politeness meant she could not refuse.
He left her there with a cup of tea and went about his business. After some time, he reckoned she’d had long enough. He fixed a broad smile on his face when she stood up; all she could do was thank him for his hospitality, though she looked deeply uncomfortable. He waved her off cheerily, and as she walked on down the road, he could see how sodden and greasy her skirt looked from behind. He went back to the day room to mop up the melted illicit butter that had run down her legs and pooled on the floor by the hearth.
Shane Connaughton is on intimate terms with the world my grandfather occupied. The son of a Garda sergeant in a border station in Co Cavan, he grew up among the men of the barracks, at a time when the Civil War was still a fresh memory and the mostly invisible border – that strange liminal space where a neighbouring field could represent a different world – was a daily reminder of that war. So too was the IRA’s border campaign in the 1950s, which saw an influx of gardaí transferred from other stations. When the campaign ended, many of these men were left kicking their heels, dealing with smugglers, petty thieves and minor misdemeanours.
We leave knowing a little more of that world and, perhaps, a little more of our better selves
Shane evokes this world beautifully in his classic A Border Station and its newly published sequel, Married Quarters. At the recent launch for Married Quarters, Eoin McHugh, publisher at the time with Doubleday Ireland, described the moment he saw Shane’s name in the subject line of his inbox as “one of those great and rare moments when something truly special happens”. Not only were we being offered the opportunity to publish this new work – which came fully formed, and needed little editorial intervention – but we also agreed to reissue A Border Station.
Shane Connaughton’s name was familiar to me, of course – I knew of his novels and his screenplays, particularly his masterful work on My Left Foot. To my shame, though, I had not read A Border Station, first published in 1989, and so I got to savour its delicate, rich prose for the first time last summer. Equally, Married Quarters drew me into a world that was at once familiar and alien to me.
Remarkably, for a book written more than a quarter of a century after its predecessor, the sense of continuity is immediate. No more than four years have passed in the life of the central character of both books – the boy, Danny – and Shane transports us effortlessly into this world. His sense of place and time is pin-point accurate, and the pages breathe with the lives of the people who inhabit them.
Danny’s brooding, rule-bound father longs for a murder case to solve before he retires, something to mark his career, something to break the tedium. Along with Danny, the books’ constant observer, we are invited into the day room to sit by the fire and hear the colourful stories of the men under the sergeant’s command, many of whom have been transferred there for reasons of insubordination, or drunkenness, or because they’re past their sell-by date. They are scurrilous stories, and poignant, and farcical, and hilarious, and deeply moving.
The remnants of the Civil War are there too, in the petty politics which sees the old guard – mostly Free Staters, including the sergeant himself – being sidelined by the rising tide of Dev’s ambitious brigade, represented here by Chief Superintendent “The Bully” Barry. Old enemies must learn to accommodate new realities. Plus ça change…
As we warm by the fire, and get to know these men, we increasingly realise that their stories are the story of Danny and his love for his father, and for his patient, soft-spoken mother – it is she who rules in the station’s married quarters, after all. It is the story of Danny’s anguish at the inevitability of growing up and watching them growing old. And as Danny realises he has to be more than an observer, anything we as readers may have smuggled into that day room – any preconceptions, or 21st-century savvy – melts away in the authenticity of the telling and the deep-felt conviction of the truth of these people. We leave knowing a little more of that world and, perhaps, a little more of our better selves.
I never knew my grandfather; he died when I was just six months old. But he lived for me in the pages of A Border Station and Married Quarters, in the stories and failings and laughter and dreams of the men and women who populate the books’ pages, in their warmth and humour and decency. In these days when borders of all kinds are growing so increasingly fluid, and some think they can stem the tide of time with hard borders and harder minds, it’s worth paying tribute to the decency of our forebears, as Shane Connaughton has so beautifully done in A Border Station and Married Quarters.
Brian Langan worked as editor on Married Quarters by Shane Connaughton. Next week: Danny Morrison on Married Quarters