Exploring the Border: the first challenge in Derry is to find it
In Donegal and Derry lives are lived and businesses thrive with cross-Border access
Ruairí O’Doherty, manager, Border Stores, Killea, Co Donegal. Photograph: Freya McClements
When attempting to walk the Irish Border, the first challenge is finding it.
I trample through chest-high grass along Lough Foyle, forging a path towards a metre-wide stream which must surely be it. It feels like uncharted territory and, for a moment, I indulge myself with the thought that this must be how it feels to be an explorer.
Around here my phone, and a map, are of no real use. An app suggests I’m in the water, with the grey line of the Border somewhere on land. Technology has failed, this is an unmapped journey.
In some of these villages, about half of the residents are originally from the North, but were attracted over the Border in the mid-2000s by cheaper house prices.
A few crossing points remain closed. As I reach the road, there is a bridge still blocked by a pair of concrete “dragon’s teeth”. Once a common sight during the Troubles, these have been left behind because the road is weak and unsafe for vehicles, but it is a short-cut for a local runner.
“You’re the second journalist who’s stopped me this week,” he says. “The other one was from Denmark. They all want to know about the Border.”
Giving his name only as John, a civil servant, he explains he lived in Donegal for 11 years but moved back to Derry due to his concerns about Brexit.
“I’ve a young fella starting uni,” he says, “and we needed a Northern address. It’s too chancy otherwise, because who knows how things will pan out in four years’ time.”
This uncertainty is repeated elsewhere as I walk the Border. Next door is Don Reddin, owner of Reddin’s Coach Hire, who has attempted to “Brexit-proof” his business by extending his bus yard in Muff, a few hundred metres across the Border, and by building a back gate – literally – into the North.
“At this stage I was hoping for something more positive,” says Reddin, “but we’re now in the second half of 2018 and all that’s happening is the UK currency is crumbling.
“I’m getting more and more worried. I’ve no idea what’s going to happen.”
Across the road – “just about in the North and no more” – are Majella and Bill Johnson of Johnson Produce.
Their warehouse is full of freshly-cut flowers imported mainly from the Netherlands and then dispatched to both sides of the Border.
“Any Border controls would be a disaster,” says Majella. “If there were customs checks it wouldn’t be viable, it could put us out of business.
“We’ve been thinking about buying land across the road, just to have an address in the South. Our options would be to relocate, to close down, or to just operate in the North, but that business wouldn’t be enough to sustain us.”
This becomes another theme. Businesses that feel they could survive on one side or the other are more confident; those depending on cross-Border trade less so. Chief among these is Enda McColgan, the manager of the Texaco service station in Muff.
He says “90, 95 per cent of our trade is in the North, we’re so close to the Border. If the Border goes up, the shutters will go down.
We’ll be back to the days of smuggling and back roads, and it’ll cause big trouble. It’s peaceful now – why not keep it that way?
Nearby, self-styled “Border campaigners” John Grant and Willie Doherty are taking a break. Leaning on the bridge that marks the Border, they point out the former Irish customs hut which still sits on the main road.
“If they put checkpoints on the Border I’ll not be stopping,” says Grant. “I’m not paying to take my goods across.”
“Me neither,” adds Doherty. “I’ll stand my ground, and so will most people.
“We’ll be back to the days of smuggling and back roads, and it’ll cause big trouble. It’s peaceful now – why not keep it that way?”
They are far from the only ones. “Don’t write this down,” another man instructs me. “If they put anything on the Border they’ll blow it to pieces.”
Leaving Muff, the Border skirts Derry city to the west, a network of roads and lanes cutting back and forth across it. At points the Border splits the road in half, at others it cuts across fields.
As always, the changing road signs become my guide. Here, they tell their own stories: a sticker reading “No Border No Brexit” has been affixed to a stop sign. Written above a km/hr sign is “Gombeenland”.
Paddy Carr uses these roads often to cycle from Derry to Donegal. He remembers well the days of the customs posts.
“When you were a child, the one who got to bring the book in got your hand stamped, it was a big thing,” he says. “But it was inconvenient. If you got back late and the customs post was closed you had to leave the car and walk back into town.”
If Donegal’s villages have experienced a boom, so too has Derry, which is expanding to the point where its housing estates are nestling against the Border. I have to hop on to the verge as a red double-decker bus makes its way along one of the narrow roads.
She too remembers queuing at the checkpoint to go to Buncrana for a day trip. “There was no traffic in those days but you still had to queue. The volume of traffic nowadays, it would tie up the whole of Derry.”
If I come in from Eastern Europe with kids, I’ll get a house right away. I know a guy in Newry who’s 50 and single and can’t get a house
Her fear is that a hard border would devastate tourism locally.
“I’m afraid people would stop coming. It would be like during the Troubles, when they went to the South but were afraid to cross over into the North.”
Today, the Gap Coffee Company in Bridgend is full of Northerners on holiday. Among them is a visitor from Newry.
“Sit you down and let me tell you about the Border,” he says.
“If I come in from Eastern Europe with kids, I’ll get a house right away. I know a guy in Newry who’s 50 and single and can’t get a house.
“The way I see it you look after your own first. Border? No odds to me, bring it on.”
Asked for his name, he replies: “No, I won’t be putting my name to it.”
As I head south in a loop that takes me back towards the Foyle, south of Derry, the ground becomes more hilly and remote. To the west is the ancient stone ring fort of Grianán an Aileach; to the east, a TV mast.
Eventually, the terrain dips down towards a reservoir and beside it is what appears to be a customs post, though there is nobody around to ask.
Killea in Co Donegal still retains the feel of a small village despite many estates growing up around it during the boom. The bust is still in evidence, and the remnants of a ghost estate sit opposite another busy petrol station.
People need to understand the importance of free-flowing movement to these wee small villages
“I lie awake at night wondering what’s going to happen,” says Ruairí O’Doherty, the manager of Border Stores. “Then you wake up and you realise there are no answers.
“We’re well-supported locally but 80 per cent of our trade is cross-Border. Nobody will come across if there’s a hard border.
“In a small village like this probably the majority of the people are working in the North and have healthcare and their children educated in the North.
“People need to understand the importance of free-flowing movement to these wee small villages. People living away from the Border think it’s not that big a deal, but if you’re living here, it’s massive.”
From nearby Carrigans, just south of Derry, the Border runs along the river Foyle as far as Strabane.
I hitch a lift with Foyle Search and Rescue, one of the city’s best-known charities. Its volunteers carry out searches and patrol the river’s bridges and banks and take part in suicide prevention education.
My guides are Brian McGuigan and Dougie McGhee. As the city disappears, the river feels peaceful. The fields come right down to the river’s edge, and we see herons and swans. We search for the Border.
“On the waterway, honestly, you haven’t a clue. You can’t say if you’re North or South,” says McGhee, who lives in Donegal.
“It would hamper us on pager duty. If it goes off at 2am, 3am, what happens when we have to go through a checkpoint to get to Derry to save someone’s life?”
Travelling south, we pass a large island, Island Mór, in the middle of the Foyle, and huge pillars which are the only remnants of a railway bridge across the Border.
Ahead is Lifford Bridge, the link between Strabane, Co Tyrone, and Lifford, Co Donegal. The boat stops – we are in two feet of water. McGhee gives me a piggyback to shore, and then I scramble up the bank to the bridge.
In the middle is the strip of concrete which marks the Border, and the end of my journey. This time, I know exactly where I am.
I stand with a foot on each side, and watch as fishermen and families with buggies pass back and forth.