What the English did for us – An Irishman’s Diary on our love of county boundaries

  The Irish people have a fierce affection for county boundaries, an affection not afforded to any other relic of English rule

The Irish people have a fierce affection for county boundaries, an affection not afforded to any other relic of English rule


It’s to be hoped that the current tensions along the Roscommon-Westmeath border can be resolved peacefully, despite the dark mutterings in the former county about “invaders” and “Orangemen”, as reported by Keith Duggan (January 16th).  

 But whatever happens to the local government reform proposals there, and elsewhere, the opposition they’re provoking illustrates yet again the fierce affection Irish people have for county boundaries, an affection not afforded to any other relic of English rule.

The model for Ireland’s counties was originally, I think, Anglo-Saxon, while the aristocratic name (implying areas ruled by “counts”) was Norman. 

Between them, these imperialist gradually imposed their system on Gaelic Ireland, up to and including the partition of the old O’Byrne and O’Toole territories in 1606, one of the results of which was the alien concept of “Wicklow”, the newest-fangled of the 32.

Four centuries later, however, Wicklow guards its borders as jealously as Roscommon or any other of the entities created by the shiring of Ireland. And the irony is that the system’s greatest police force is the GAA, that promoter of all things Gaelic and ancient, which has nevertheless also encouraged a fidelity to county borders that would have astonished Queen Elizabeth I.

There are other reinforcers at work, I know – the Republic’s car registration system, for one. But I suspect that too was just an embellishment of the local pride (and rivalries) encouraged by the GAA.  Hence the returned compliment of those mocked-up number plates that proclaim, for example, “12 DL SAM”.

The even bigger irony, meanwhile, is on the other side of the Irish Sea, where the old British county boundaries have dissolved into a morass of confusion and apathy.  

I’ve been reading a very entertaining book about this of late, Engel’s England, for which journalist Matthew Engel visited all 39 of the traditional English counties (plus London) and found, increasingly, that people don’t know where they live. This is in part the result of local government reforms in the 1970s, which created a plethora of new counties, such as “Avon”, “Cleveland”, and “Humberside”. These were just as quickly abandoned, but left a displacement that was permanent, with no GAA or car registration system to restore clarity.

There is cricket, it’s true, which ignored the 1970s reforms and carried on using the traditional counties. In some respects, occasionally, it even surpassed the GAA in boundary enforcement.  

Engels mentions Yorkshire’s long adherence to the rule that future players had to be born inside county lines. This gave rise to stories about expectant mothers “being rushed up the AI as their contractions grew more frequent, with their husbands desperate to get across the frontier just in case the event brought forth a man-child”.

But then again, less than half the English counties play first-class cricket. And, in general, as an influence on identity formation, the sport is in the ha’penny place compared with Gaelic games. In the preface to his book, Engel glances enviously at Ireland, where “everyone can instantly recognise the perceived characteristics of a Corkman, Kerryman, or Dub”. He also informs readers, with similarly fond regard for our traditions, how “former Taoiseach Brian Cowen was widely known as BIFFO”, and what the acronym means.

But the downside of our attachment to county borders, as I’ve argued before, is that most GAA fans are condemned forever to live in failed entities, drawn up at a whim by our former overlords, and often separated from successful counties by nothing greater than a stream. As for playing first-class hurling or camogie, the great majority don’t even try. Football is the main outlet for most counties’ collective pride. And there, optimism springs eternal, like the dividing streams, although like those too, it usually dries up in summer. It doesn’t matter. County identities may not have infiltrated the Irish DNA, exactly, contrary to GAA promotional claims.But for better or worse, they’re part of what we are.

Getting back to Engel, by the way, he was at first unsure what to do with London. It was too big to include, and wasn’t a traditional county. Equally, it was too big to ignore, so he wrote a chapter on it anyway.  London fits in much more comfortably here, of course.  As Engel may or may not know, it’s one of the 33 counties contesting this year’s All-Ireland football championship.  Unfortunately, facing the might of Mayo in round one, it will not even have the luxury of misplaced optimism.