Life on the frontier: Garrett Carr's journey along our northern border

In his book, ‘The Rule of the Land: Walking Ireland’s Border’, Garrett Carr blends rhythms of philosophy, history, legend, memoir, and travelogue into a beguiling melody. Brendan Daly savours the tune

Life on the frontier: Garrett Carr's journey along our northern border

WHEN Winston Churchill addressed the House of Commons in February 1922, in the wake of Irish partition, he despaired that “we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again”.

Despite the catastrophe of the first world war and the transformation of the map of Europe, Churchill wearily acknowledged the stubborn persistence of Ireland’s intractable divisions.

An exploration of Ireland’s borderland straddling partition, the meagrely-populated, seemingly unchanging place stained by tribal hatreds, could, in the wrong hands, make for worthy, dismal reading.

Thankfully, The Rule of the Land is no such book. With a light touch and deft observation, Garrett Carr blends rhythms of philosophy, history, legend, memoir, and travelogue into a beguiling melody.

As he journeys from ancient defensive monuments to newly-built peace bridges, Carr gently uncoils themes of land, home, and power.

Starting in Carlingford Lough, Carr travels nearly 500 kilometres west, by foot and canoe — camping out on the land — along an invisible line to Lough Foyle.

With Britain’s imminent departure from the European Union, this quest is especially timely: Carr is tracing what will become the only land frontier between the United Kingdom and the EU.

If the border’s future is uncertain, its past is a place where heroic myth collides with brutal reality.

As Carr, a Donegal native, travels through the Cooley Mountains, he rehearses the Táin Bó Cúailnge, the epic tale of Cúchulainn, for which the mountains provide the setting.

But when Carr looks across the border, he sees Narrow Water Keep — the site of one of the most notorious attacks of the Troubles.

One day in 1979, the IRA exploded two roadside bombs: the first packed with cans of petrol, the second 30 minutes later at the place where the injured were taken. The bombs killed 18 British soldiers and a civilian was shot dead during the ensuring chaos.

On the Leitrim/Fermanagh border, Carr encounters a prehistoric foreshadowing of partition.

Dating from the Iron Age, the Black Pig’s Dyke is a cluster of 12 earthworks that closely correspond to the contemporary North/South frontier, leading some to claim that today’s boundary stems from deep roots.

The Williamite War, after King James was deposed by King William, dramatically reinforced Ireland’s political fault lines and the Bloody Pass in Cavan testifies to the bitterness of that chapter in our history.

Carr visits the mass grave where, in 1689, trapped against the lake shore, 500 Jacobites were either shot, drowned, or hacked to death.

While Carr trains a magnifying glass on the border’s turbulent history, he also excavates the area’s literary influences, particularly Leitrim’s “landscape shaped for loneliness” that informed William Trevor’s short stories and is exemplified in his devastating The Ballroom of Romance.

Geography frequently determines history and Carr suggests that the drumlins that characterise the borderland lent themselves to ambushes and conspiring.

But individuals, too, can mould their environment and community.

In a penetrating analysis, Carr shows that when Sean Quinn took the pebbles, dropped by a glacier during the last ice age, from under his small farm and made them into gravel, Quinn was beginning to fashion the landscape.

By 2007, Quinn had 20 separate facilities — including Quinn Glass, Quinn Energy, and Quinn Cement — spanning, and transforming, both sides of the border.

One of the most striking aspects of the book is the intimacy of Carr’s writing.

The author accomplishes this partly through small, powerful details: when recounting the murder of two members of the Stronge family in Armagh in 1981, for example, Carr tells us that while watching the family from the trees before launching the attack, the 10 IRA men ate sandwiches and drank lemonade.

Principally, though, this intimacy is real ised through Carr’s vivid portrayals of the people he meets. The pages crackle with their voices.

Friendly, but wary, the inhabitants of this borderland are almost always curious to see an outsider. “If you’re here,” a man in Donegal tells him, “you must be lost.” Some of those Carr meets are “as shy as deer” and “say hello in a way that makes you aware it is also goodbye”. After Carr exchanged three sentences with one man on the road, the man said “That’ll do”, folded his arms, and looked away.

A farmer invites Carr in for breakfast, but doesn’t sit at the kitchen table with him. He makes Carr porridge and tea and tells him about his son who was killed in the Troubles. The farmer typically stands at the window, with his fingers wrapped around the kitchen worktop. “I get the feeling,” Carr observes, “he stands there a lot.”

A lecturer in creative writing at Queen’s University Belfast and the author of three Young Adult novels, Carr examines the language of the borderland with a forensic clarity.

As he walks through the area where Columba McVeigh, the Disappeared teenager murdered by the IRA, is believed to be buried, Carr reflects on how the term ‘IRA’ implies McVeigh was killed not by people but by an “acronym”.

But later, Carr acknowledges how this double-speak was fundamental to the peace process: where ‘disarming’ entails something forced on you, ‘decommissioning’ suggests a voluntary initiative.

Like the best travel writers, Carr uses his five senses to capture the spirit of the place. But Carr also employs his non-fiction skills to convey the borderlands.

In Carlingford Lough, Carr sees a lighthouse designed by the engineer and inventor Allen MacDonnell and wonders: “How would he seem as he walked?”

At an Iron Age settlement in Armagh, Carr speculates whether those who guarded the gateway to ancient Ulster grumbled about the cold.

Indeed, Carr’s unconventional perspective provides the chemistry of the book.

When he comes across illegal dumping on the border (“the unwanted place that is now the place for the unwanted”) and encounters a washing machine dumped on its back, he sees its circular mouth howling “How could you leave me like this?” at the sky.

Similarly, boy racers rarely feature in travel writing, but, in Clones, Carr observes boy racers who chase the border in cars too large for the landscape, their hearts thundering “with feelings they can only express with a foot on the accelerator”.

As he trails the border, Carr develops his own observation-based theories about the greetings he receives from drivers.

The greetings include the raised index finger, the horn-toot, and the sideways head tick from an old man on a tractor, which, mysteriously, can “acknowledge all your trouble, all his trouble, all the trouble in the world”.

Carr’s precise evocation of the landscape and his skilled storytelling make The Rule of the Land a fine successor to Colm Tóibín Walking Along the Border (1987).

Carr is also a mapmaker and the precision of his writing is matched by the nine remarkable maps he produces to illustrate the border.

The landscape Carr journeys through is streaked by pivotal episodes in Irish history and a constant of the book is Carr’s lucid explanations of this knotted past, often assuming the reader has no prior knowledge.

Carr’s book is firmly aimed at an international audience — and it’s one it richly deserves.

The Rule of the Land paints a vibrant portrait of a forgotten frontier and makes a compelling argument that partition divided Ireland not in two but in three: north, south, and borderland.

The Rule of the Land: Walking Ireland’s Border

Garrett Carr

Faber & Faber, €17.99

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