As Brexit threatens the reimposition of a “hard” border across this island, it is a good time to look back at the effects such a border once had. From closed roads to cockfights, fishing disputes to smugglers, Peter Leary offers a fascinating insight into how people and communities “negotiated” the line that disrupted their lives in 1922 and continued to define them for decades after. Leary avoids the traditional focus on national politics: instead of Dublin and Belfast, this is a story set in small towns, villages, and fields. But it is not a parochial history: concepts and comparisons are imaginatively drawn from the borderlands of West Africa to the “microhistory’ of Counter-Reformation Italy to the anthropology of Indonesia. Leary shows how “small facts speak to large issues”.
The drawing of an often-nonsensical border ruptured communities in southern and western Ulster. Leary finds great frustration in submissions to the Boundary Commission, from people suddenly cut off from their own fields to those angry about shopping. A Presbyterian minister in Donegal lamented having to go “into a foreign country” to buy suits as local shops were just “not up to date”. “If you send your wife out for a herring,” said a Lifford man, she had to cross the border, at which there would be all sorts of “performances going on”, with irritated locals interacting with two new jurisdictions that were initially almost at war.
Although Leary does not minimise the ugly sectarian violence of the Border’s early years, he does note how much less extreme it was than the brutal “unmixing of peoples” in the Continent’s other post-first World War borderlands. But many did find themselves adrift on the “wrong side”. Southern Protestants often felt stranded (“I cannot forget the attack made by the people of Southern Ireland on the people of my blood,”aid one reverend), while Ulster Catholics became second-class citizens in sectarian Northern Ireland: a Fermanagh man said he spoke for 250 Catholic ex-servicemen facing discrimination for housing and jobs: “It was not a matter of religion in 1914,” he reminded the commissioners.
There was no revision of the Border’s oddities, and people had to learn to “creatively” live with it. Leary skilfully recounts some of the marginal pursuits of these marginal communities, showing how the border was a place where a lot more than states collided. Illicit cockfighting meetings sometimes attracted thousands in the border counties. The distraction and confusion of the Border’s creation were a perfect opportunity for cockfighters to evade the law, but by the mid-1920s the Free State cracked down on the illegal activity, much to the chagrin of enthusiasts: when a Garda tried to intervene at a fight in 1926, a Monaghan man shouted that he was “doing the Black and Tans work now”.
People exploited local knowledge to evade interruption: a crowd taunted an RUC motorboat from a skilfully-located fight on the Free State side of Lough Erne, while organisers often had a raft ready for riverside meets in case cross-Border police cooperation necessitated flotation between the two jurisdictions. Newspapers chronicled this “cat-and-mouse” as much as they did the actual “sport”. Reporters described the settings “from the tactical aspect”, and reported how the crowds took “delight in scoring off the police”.
Beyond such boisterous defiance, however, the border was an enormous headache, especially during the “Economic War” and “Emergency” when customs barriers were high. An American airman stationed in Belleek described “one of the worst examples of frontier bureaucracy in existence”. Smuggling became a fact of life. A Protestant farmer in Fermanagh noted that “you couldn’t live on the border and not smuggle”; a Monaghan man said it “turned us all into petty criminals”. White bread, butter, shoes, cars, tea, banned books, condoms: all manner of life crossed the border in secret. When a journalist asked if it might not be better to keep quiet about all the cattle smuggling going on in the 1930s, a farmer responded incredulously: “Sure the whole country’s doin’ nothin’ else. There was never as much crack around here as far back as I remember.”
Yet smuggling was not a game; it was often about necessity too. Leary notes both the class and gender aspects of smuggling, and how it could subvert rigid social norms. Women used everything from prams to underwear to hide food and other items, leaving male customs officials in a difficult position: “housewives” would defiantly dare the Garda to search them at Dundalk station. Some men even tried to take advantage of this gendering: a “woman” seen carrying an 8-stone bag of flour across the border in 1942 turned out to be a man dressed up in a shawl.
Tall tales (true or apocryphal) told of the wily official who would invite women to sit by the fire until hidden butter melted down their legs, or the man who confounded authorities for years by smuggling wheelbarrows rather than the legal loads with which he filled them. One woman would allegedly provoke a prudish southern border official with the banned News of the World, so that her friends could use the time in which he would ritually burn it to sneak across.
Smuggling routes were also used by those challenging the border in more violent ways, and roads became veins of tension. Residents from both sides resented the "policing" effect of controlled roads, which at times caused great inconvenience, cutting people off from work or home without detours of up to 30 miles. In almost every decade, security concerns led to British forces cratering Border roads to prevent crossings, often provoking angry locals to fill them in: in 1972 one such gathering at Aghafin was attacked by the British Army, though the locals persisted with their makeshift repairs (defiantly signing Amhrán na bhFiann after they finished).
Border life became much darker from the 1970s, and Leary’s excellent book wisely advises against eulogising or romanticising the marginal: these stories should, in Patrick Kavanagh’s words, “be neither damned nor glorified”. The people of the Border were “dancing at the crossroads of modern Irish history”, their creative “negotiation” of its burdens and contradiction a window into the borders within wider society. We must hope such creativity is not necessary again in the near future.
Dr Christopher Kissane is a historian at the London School of Economics & Political Science, and a BBC New Generation Thinker.