In 1962, the Ulster poet John Hewitt published a short poem called The Frontier. It is ostensibly about crossing the Alps between France and Switzerland but, of course, not really.
Hewitt’s reflection on the absurdity of border-crossings is inevitably resonant of more insular experiences. The train he is on stops and “small men in uniform drift down the corridor, thumb passports” and mark the travellers’ bags with chalk as a sign that they have been duly inspected.
We pass here into another allegiance,
expect new postage stamps, new prices, manifestoes,
and brace ourselves for the change. But the landscape does not alter;
we had already entered these mountains an hour ago.
Borders are often like this, arbitrary, accidental, and at odds with a landscape that is sublimely indifferent to their merely human contingency.
They are an attempt to impose culture on nature, to privilege history over geography, to elevate the work of centuries or even decades over the work of eons, to insist that short human time triumphs over the long duration of geological time.
The mountains don’t give a toss about the small men in uniform. And, as Hewitt was slyly hinting, this is just as true whether the mountains are the soaring Alps or the sombre Mournes, majestic white peaks or low, wet drumlins.
I’m old enough to remember the men in uniform boarding the trains at Newry for what was, in the pre-Troubles time of my early childhood, a perfunctory ritual of inspection.
I also remember the equally casual ticking of the bags with chalk by the bored Irish Customs officials manning the barrier at Heuston Station, like assembly line workers going through their repetitive motions.
Did they realise that the same kids who had gone up to Belfast that morning as skinny waifs were now sweating and obese because they were wearing three layers of cheap smuggled clothes? Sure they did – but so long as the bag was not bulging with obvious contraband, it received its quick benediction of chalk.
“Habit”, says Didi in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, “is a great deadener”. We get used to pretty much anything. For people who actually lived and worked on the old Irish Border of my childhood, it was always a daily irritant. And of course for militant Irish nationalists, it was an affront and a provocation. But most of the time, for most people, it was a habit, a dead ritual that must nonetheless be performed.
If the history were not so unsettled, and if had not become even more so, the reasons why this line was drawn here and not there, why to move from one field to the next was to “pass . . . into another allegiance”, would have been gradually forgotten. Habit would have deadened those questions; the Border would be there because it was there.
But we broke the habit. These days, whenever I’m on the train from Dublin to Belfast, I know I’ve crossed the Border only because my mobile phone burrs and my provider sends me a text message of unconscious but magnificent irony: “You are now roaming in Europe.”
Brexit threatens to turn this quotidian travel from a mere crossing into a reminder of the capriciousness of history
There are still different postage stamps, different prices, different currencies and different allegiances. But we’ve been “roaming in Europe” on our own island for almost 25 years now, ever since the single market came into force in 1993.
If this had never happened, if the men in uniform had sustained their officious ceremonies, the force of habit might have meant that for all the minor irritations and all the atavistic animosities, the Border would have retained its old power of deadening routine.
Instead it’s like smoking. If you smoke for decades, you don’t notice how disgusting it is, don’t smell the acrid tang from your clothes and furniture.
But if you’ve long since broken the habit, you can’t bear the thought of going back to the raking cough and the clinging odour and the nicotine-stained fingers.
Within a few years of giving up the smokes, you wonder how you ever started such an awful habit in the first place.
And after 25 years without the Border-crossing rituals, they will, if they return, seem impossibly absurd.
Crossing the Irish Border is ordinary: it is a thing that is done 110 million times a year. And in recent decades, it has been mostly a thing of geography, not of history.
Brexit threatens more and more to reverse this order, to turn this quotidian travel from a mere crossing of the indifferent landscape into a reminder of the capriciousness of history – 110 million annual lessons in the pettiness and folly of human efforts to impose our political meanings on the mountains and the rivers.
For what we know and have always known about the Irish Border is that the rituals of inspection and the hurried chalk marks were just that, little ceremonies that did nothing to hold this imaginary line against the realities of a highly porous landscape.
The strange thing about the present moment is that everybody knows we can’t go back to those daft pretences – and yet back is the only current direction of travel. Unless we are roaming in Europe, we will be doomed to border on the absurd.