Bad Blood: a walk along the Irish border by Colm Tóibín


Young Colm Tóibín

In a pub in the little cross-road town of Cullaville, just two fields north of the border between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, the bar has two till-drawers: one for Euros (Irish currency) and one for the British pound. More than 200 formal and informal roads (tractor and foot paths) cross the border and it isn’t often clear for travellers which country they are in; sometimes it may only be the change of the speed-limit that may give them a clue, sometimes nothing at all.

Alastair McDonnell, an MP from Belfast has been flooded with queries, following the Brexit vote, from his constituents about what will happen if the border becomes ‘hard’ again. It’s possible that come the reality of Brexit (2019 says British PM, Therese May) little border towns like Cullaville will potentially become the EU’s back door to Britain.

Anne Devlin, a resident of the North who buys her petrol in the South where it’s cheaper, said, “Brexit got everyone talking, that’s for sure. It reminds everyone who is who, where is where, north or south, the Troubles, all of that.” It’s been only 18 years since the last bomb exploded during the religious-based conflict that claimed more than 3,500 lives.

With the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 between the UK and the Irish Republic the path was finally set for peace but which didn’t come for another 13 years with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. In the summer of 1986 Colm Tóibín walked the border in preparation for his account of the feat published the following year: Bad Blood: a walk along the Irish border. Actually it was more like a ‘drink’ along the Irish border: Colm likes his ale.

For a border that may now need to be re-fortified, given the European refugee problem that doesn’t look like slowing down – certainly not within the next two years, its ‘hardness’ may have many other repercussions. Sometimes it runs through the middle of someone’s field; in South Armagh (the North) there is a shop whose “doorway itself was the border, the outside of the shop being in the North, every entry and exit involved smuggling”; and not only that, where the border separates County Fermanagh (the North) from County Caven (the South) there is a house where “the border went right through like a slicer through a block of cheese.

The house was a small, modest, old-fashioned cottage. When I knocked on the door a man in his sixties came out. His name was Felix Murray, I discovered, and the border ran through his house in which he and his two brothers lived. These days, he said, all three slept in the North, but there was a time when one of them had slept in the South. ‘Only an odd time now,’ he said, ‘we sleep in the State’. There was a sofa in the kitchen, he pointed out through the window. Where you could sit and let the border run through you.”

This was 20 years ago and things may be a different now but as you can see from the image below, the border to this day, seems a long way from logical.


His early non-fiction shows the development of Tóibín’s style later employed, to some extent, in his novels; his first novel, The South, was published in the following year, 1990. His fiction shows his debt to journalism with his plain unadorned prose, seen here in Bad Blood.

“I told him I was writing a book. He invited us in. He didn’t say anything. The front room of the house was small and comfortable. There was a fire lit. A television and a video machine stood in the corner.”

Compare this is a passage from his second novel, The Heather Blazing (1992),

“His grandmother was in the kitchen with his Aunt Margaret and his Aunt Molly who was married to his Uncle Patrick. Two of his cousins were in his the back room in cowboy suits. They all stood round as Eamon distributed the presents. Stephen sat by the fire, huddled in against the wall with his legs crossed. He opened his parcel slowly and smiled when he saw the book.”  Short, bald, unadorned sentences.

Tóibín trusts his readers to do most of the descriptive work and gives them great responsibility to fill in the detail, so much so that in his latest novel, Nora Webster (2014) no place or person is described: every reader has a hometown, its feel and smells, and every reader knows a nosy neighbour or a favourite aunt and Tóibín relies on this reader-experience. In this way Toibin’s work, for readers, becomes very personal. A reader from Melbourne, Australia, on finishing reading The South, slept with it under her pillow for two weeks.

In 1989, even though the border may have been on the map it wasn’t, in a lot of places, on the land (large white crosses had to be painted on roads to make the border visible to British helicopter pilots), but it was in people’s hearts. Back then it was all about tension in the air but a stiff upper British lip, this is in the North, was still the way people behaved.

At dinner in a hospitable family house in the North the first course served was beetroot soup. Toibin, from the South, innocently commented that it was called borscht, and it was a great favourite of the Pope’s. That word hung in the air like a fart. Everyone stopped listening and became immensely interested in their soup and the care it took to not let it spill on the white tablecloth. No-one spoke.

Religion was not at the heart of it but at the bottom of it.

“Yes, one of them said, the older people maintained that the accidents were a sort of revenge for what was done to the Grahams. God, you know, did I understand? It was God. It seemed like a large number of young people from the same area, I said, to be killed in accidents. They nodded grimly. I said I didn’t think it was God. No, they agreed, they didn’t either. It was just something which was said.”

Since Brexit the talk now is again about Irish re-unification: Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein (once a terrorist organisation, now a major political player), said that since the vote by the North against Brexit (56%) a referendum over unification was necessary, Michael Martin leader of the main opposition party in Ireland agrees; Arlene Foster, first minister of the North, thinks such a move would be ‘a folly’.

When Tóibín walked the border the air was still tense. Now a lot of golf is being played and it’s a nice place to be a cow. In people’s lives now the border is a shadow: it’s crossed for shopping, for school, for selling. No-one wants it to become a frontier again. What everyone wants is for the leaders in London, Brussels, Dublin and Belfast to manage Brexit while preserving the peace and allowing the economy to flourish. They’ve got 2 years.

Kill Your Darlings #26 July 2016

A little over one hundred years ago, in 1914 on a summer’s day in January, Sir Arthur Quiller Couch* gave a lecture at Cambridge University entitled On Style in an attempt to rail against superfluous ornamentation in literary works. The transcript was included in chapter 12 of his 1916 volume On the Art of Writing, in which he wrote,

“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”

In other words, be prepared to delete your most cherished bit for the greater good of the whole work. Be subjective! Be ruthless!

William Faulkner, in a letter, misremembered the quote and wrote, ‘kill your darlings’ which was repeated by Stephen King in his On Writing (2000), “kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings” and so it is this version of the quote that is the name of this handsome Australian literary journal about ‘culture, commentary, politics and society’. As you can see the covers are very distinctive: cleverly and beautifully illustrated and designed by Guy Shield.

It was founded in Melbourne, Australia, in 2010 and its editors, Rebecca Starford and Hannah Kent, should be very proud of their creation, which looks more like a paperback than a magazine. Rebecca Starford is the author of the very well received memoir, Bad Behaviour (2015), and Hannah Kent’s debut novel Burial Rites (2013) was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award.

A highlight in this volume, #26, is Lian Low’s account of growing up and not coming out in Malaysia: The Famous Five in Kuala Lumpur. Low has a wonderful twist on language and coming across one of her little verbal gems is like finding a lolly in the bottom of a packet you thought was empty. She made me laugh.

Have you heard of slow reading? which, apparently, is taking the world by (a slow) storm. Jerath Head writes amusingly, The Space of Hours, about a reading group diligently reading collectively in Brisbane’s Avid Reader Bookshop and Café, James Joyce’s terrifyingly difficult Finnegans Wake; his last. The Wakeans meet regularly and labour over two or three pages of Joyce for two hours and predict that they will finish the book in 2039. Red wine and conviviality ease the pain and bring out the joy. I loved this piece.

KYD’s interview editor, Gerard Elson, prints a transcript of a delightful interview with Anna Goldstein, the continuing translator of the latest literary and publicity-shy sensation, Elena Ferrante. The interview gives no clues to the writer’s true identity, if there is one, but Anna’s own story is well worth writing and reading about. However, towards the end of it I craved more of Goldstein and less of the interviewer.

There are fascinating articles on the joys of paper books and bookshops; academic forays into the psychology of the fangirl phenomenon; and a feminist take on the symbolism and sexism of Little Red Riding Hood.

Ashley Kalagian Blunt’s dispatch Postcards from North Korea was however a little disappointing. My expectations of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are probably cliché ridden but I didn’t expect to have my expectations confirmed: you shouldn’t need to resort to gray writing to write about a gray place; quite the opposite is needed.

David Sornig’s short fiction, Sounds Like Low is a beguiling and sad story of a child’s innocence and misunderstanding leading to tragedy. However I had to get over a few editing bloopers in the first two pages. There is a difference between creative writing and bad grammar. Such mistakes, little though they may be, undermine a writer’s authority and good editing should not let that happen. “The men had watched as their car passed.” The possessive pronoun, ‘their’ doesn’t refer to the subject of the sentence but to the subject of the previous sentence. It makes you stop, “What? That doesn’t make sense.” A quick re-read will identify the error and discover the correct meaning. It’s a small thing but a reader shouldn’t have to stop and untie a knot: it should be clear.

Kill Your Darlings and its value-packed website are well worth investigating and apart from a few minor lapses of editorial diligence I highly recommend this journal. It’s encouraging that this publication has avoided the recent Australian government’s attacks on arts funding.


*Arthur Thomas Quiller Couch (1863-1944), [pseudonym “Q”], English author, poet, anthologist, and literary critic. He wrote many popular novels and essays and was a noted lecturer at Cambridge University. His legacy lives on in the grammar school system of Cornwall. With his vast number of short stories, Q has a dynamic range of style and creativity with tales of the supernatural, of Vikings, satires, historical fiction, romantic adventures, tales of heroic swashbuckling, mystery and crime fiction, and sea-going adventures; as well as books of literary reference, The Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900 (1900), The Oxford Book Of Ballads (1911), On the Art of Writing (1916), On the Art of Reading (1920), and The Oxford Book of English Prose (1923). You can find most of his short and long form fiction here, where you can download them for free.