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.