Remembering Brian Hutton: His final journey prompted reflections on the Border

Moving back and forth between Derry and Donegal is the most natural thing in the world in that corner of Ireland where we ignore the Border

Our colleague Brian Hutton’s funeral was almost a month ago today.

The Mass took place in Brian’s hometown of Derry in Northern Ireland, and then his remains were brought to Co Donegal, in the Republic, for burial. His shaken loved ones and friends left the graveyard and then crossed the Border again, returning to the North to reminisce over food in a Derry hotel about Brian’s infinite kindness and endless good humour.

Amid the despair of that day, when another colleague who had travelled from the South innocently remarked on the curiosity of having just attended a funeral in two jurisdictions, I found myself hoping that Brian’s final journey might bring home what the Border meant to many Derry people of our generation: we ignored it.

It wasn’t always easy to disregard the Border, of course. Crossing it, back in the bad old days of checkpoints, used to be very tricky indeed on occasion.


But for many Troubles-era people from Derry, escaping to Donegal meant a break from tension. I’m not sure how deeply we thought about it at the time: it was the county next door with beautiful beaches, after all. But once you got there, there were no British soldiers; no RUC; no hassle.

When Brian lived in Dublin he enjoyed swimming at the Forty Foot, the priest who officiated at his funeral said, but he surely preferred the wild Atlantic to the passive Irish Sea, and he had moved back to the northwest before he died.

As a journalist, Brian was the original cross-Border body, with a rare ability to understand and report on the nuances of stories in both the Republic and Northern Ireland. We feel his loss terribly.

I would have enjoyed hearing what Brian had to say about the recent poll findings of North and South, a collaboration between The Irish Times and ARINS, the Analysing and Researching Ireland North and South project.

‘Card-carrying Nordie’

I dare say we would have knocked some fun out of the findings about cross-Border connections, which unsurprisingly for us Derry/Donegal aficionados decreased with distance from the Border. The polling found that geography matters when it comes to relationships: 58 per cent of respondents in Munster had no cross-Border connections, a much greater proportion than in Connacht/Ulster, at 27 per cent.

File photo dated 12/06/1995 of the border checkpoint at Clady, Co Derry, on the border with Donegal, shortly before it was demolished.  PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Saturday January 26, 2019. Hundreds of protesters have warned Theresa May that a return to a hard Irish border risks destroying Northern Ireland's hard-won peace. See PA story POLITICS Brexit Border. Photo credit should read: PA Wire

The focus-group remarks about the “othering” of Northerners in the Republic were also of interest. I didn’t know we were supposed to be offended by the term Nordie, as one Northern woman who took part indicated she was: “My brother has been living in north Dublin for maybe two decades now and he still gets the Nordie label down there,” she complained.

The term has never bothered me, and I’ll always treasure a funny email from Brian in which he described himself as a “card-carrying Nordie”.

Stereotypes work both ways, of course.

During the pandemic, when we were “working from home”, I would sometimes work from my mother’s house in Derry. Freya McClements, then our Northern correspondent, was “up there” too, as was Brian – scooping up all the news from both sides of the Border. We three used to laugh about it: how would the cliched Irish Times reader in south Co Dublin react if they knew their beloved newspaper was being produced out of our wee corner of the country?

For some, the concept of being “othered” may sound hopelessly woke. But Northerners were “othered” when coronavirus first appeared, and cases were documented on a county-by-county basis, when otherwise entirely reasonable people spoke casually about the need to “close the Border” to stop the spread of disease.

It showed a fundamental lack of understanding about the ties that bind Derry and Donegal together, and how people criss-cross the Border for education, work, leisure and family commitments, or simply to buy petrol and provisions. Can there be two counties in Ireland so connected?

But when restrictions eased at a quicker pace north of the Border, I took some hope from the many young people travelling from the South to Belfast and “discovering” the city as a decent place for a night out.

Understanding nuances

I must now acknowledge that I’m a middle-class, middle-aged person living quite comfortably in, yes, south Co Dublin.

As the memories of our fortysomething generation fade, young people with – thankfully – no personal recollection of the Troubles will decide the future.

For what turned out to be one of Brian’s final journalistic assignments, I asked him to talk to young people from across Northern Ireland about being outside the EU after Brexit.

As the Guardian’s Ben Quinn, a Donegal man, noted on Twitter when paying tribute to Brian, that article could “only have been written by someone with an understanding of the nuances and context”.

On the day he died, that characteristically excellent piece by Brian appeared in The Irish Times under the headline, “Diplomacy, compromise and respect are the only way we can move on”.

Mary Minihan

Mary Minihan

Mary Minihan is Features Editor of The Irish Times