Faces from the Border: Dismay, confusion and betrayal
A photographic journey through towns and villages close to the dividing line
Richard Hennings and Micheal Curran don’t want to relive Warrenpoint’s bloody past. Photograph: George Torode
Last spring, exasperated by the inability of Westminster to address the Irish Border issue during the Brexit negotiations, I decided to take a journey along it, visiting nine major towns and villages closest to the dividing line. By taking portraits of the people I met right on the Border, I wanted to give the issue a human face, and highlight that this is about far more than just a line on a map.
Feeling powerless to influence decisions being taken hundreds of miles away in Westminster, the people I approached all agreed to be photographed in the hope that the dismay and betrayal they are feeling might be heard elsewhere. Here, I’ve selected one portrait from each place (from west to east): Muff, Derry, Strabane, Pettigo, Belleek, Bellcoo/Blacklion, Aughnacloy, Middleton and Warrenpoint.
MUFF, CO DONEGAL
Matt Wallace. Plasterer
This picture was taken outside the boarded up checkpoint in Muff, close to where Wallace lives. He worked for a while as a plasterer in Reading in England, but returned home after a few months because he found the town too violent on nights out. He is a dedicated unionist. He is too young to remember the Troubles. He crosses the Border on a daily basis for work, and is anxious about how a harder border may affect his employment.
Kevin Melarkey. Roadside shop owner
Kevin Melarkey runs a roadside shop out of a shipping container on the main road heading west out of Derry City. It’s located next to the old checkpoint building, which is boarded up and overgrown. In the past it was a target for terrorist attacks, but is now a place where Melarkey has built his life. The prospect of the border post returning is unthinkable to him, and he can’t believe it’s even an option. He doesn’t think politicians in Westminster have his best interests at heart.
STRABANE, CO TYRONE
Frank Elliott. Retired baker
Frank Elliott is in his 80s and has been fishing in the River Foyle, now also the Border, since 1947. He has witnessed a lot from this location on the riverside, from the building of the bridge connecting the North (Strabane) to the Republic (Lifford) in 1964; to the Troubles when, in 1968, there was an attempt to blow the bridge up, which resulted in the construction of armed checkpoints; to the new era of free movement after the Good Friday Agreement. More recently, Border Communities Against Brexit staged a protest at the bridge in 2016.
PETTIGO, CO DONEGAL/FERMANAGH
Margaret Gallacher. Shop owner
Margaret Gallacher and her son run one of the only two shops in Pettigo. The old border checkpoint is behind her, abandoned and boarded up. The town is split down the middle, mostly along the river, although some residents had their garden in one county and their homes in another. Gallacher’s shop backs onto the Border, and she recalls at least eight times when republicans blew up or attacked the border post during the Troubles. She has no desire to return to a hard border, for the sake of convenience and also safety – she is convinced that any border infrastructure, no matter how small, will be a target for attack.
BLACKLION, CO CAVAN
Anne White and Eileen Ford. Gardeners
Anne and Eileen are planting beds for the council on the Republic of Ireland riverside in Blacklion, Co Cavan. Behind them is the bridge that will take them to their homes in Belcoo on the other side of the river in Co Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. Their families are from both sides. There is palpable despair in their voices as they ponder what effect a hard border would have on their work and family life. They say they feel abandoned by politics.
BELLEEK, CO FERMANAGH
James Lyons. Retired machine operator
I met Jimmy Lyons while he was having a smoke in the doorway of Franks Lounge Bar – a high street pub which backs onto the Border. He remembers well how the Border constituted a deadly significance in the area when he was growing up. He says had a gun pulled on him four times. He is dismayed and confused that the subject of the Border has been back on the table in Westminster. Before he goes back inside to finish his pint, he points to a nearby lamppost and recalled the moment in 1987 when British soldier, Thomas Hewitt, was shot by an IRA sniper from higher ground across the Border. He was 21. “He was just a young lad, doing his job,” he says.
AUGHNACLOY, CO TYRONE
Sean Bogue. Petrol station manager
The petrol station where Sean Bogue works is just along the Border on the Republic side, where he also lives. I photograph him in the forecourt, in front of a miniature commemorative bridge celebrating the free movement of people. The actual Border is the river, which runs behind him. He worries about his employment prospects if the right for his customers to move freely is compromised, should there be any hardening of the Border. His business relies heavily on passing trade, which he believes would be drastically reduced.
MIDDLETOWN, CO ARMAGH
Bernard Brennan. Retired plant operator
Bernard Brennan was born in Middletown but moved to the Republic in the 1980s because of the Troubles (the IRA assassinated a Protestant political activist close by in 1972), and his hatred of the Border checks. He is visiting relatives still living in Middletown when I meet him on the bridge that crosses the Border. He remembers having to cross this bridge twice a day, and long tailbacks of cars and pedestrians. If the border guard wanted to make you wait for hours he could, and often they did, he says. He describes the Troubles as “terrible times”.
WARRENPOINT, CO DOWN
Richard Hennings and Micheal Curran. Mussel farmers
Although Warrenpoint is part of the UK, the hills of the Republic of Ireland loom in the background of this picture. Hennings and Curran don’t want to relive Warrenpoint’s bloody past (it was the site of the deadliest attack on the British Army during the Troubles, when 18 soldiers were killed and six seriously injured in two IRA attacks in August 1979), and I don’t push them to. The concerns they express about Brexit are to do with fishing rights, and how any changes could affect their already delicate business.
George Torode is a London-based photographer whose portrait work focuses on people in the environments that they build. georgetorode.com
This article was edited on January 10th to correct a factual error.