Saturday 23 September 2017

An adventure along the Border filled with surprises

Non-fiction: The Rule of the Land, Garrett Carr, Faber & Faber, tpbk, 312 pages, €17.99

Border trip: Gareth Carr on his travels
Border trip: Gareth Carr on his travels
The Rule of the Land by Garrett Carr
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

A lyrical journey by foot and canoe along our ­border with the North veers from travelogue to memoir to history lesson.

The Border has always occupied a strange and singular place in the Irish consciousness. As Garrett Carr points out in this excellent book, a century of partition hasn't only created two distinct entities - the Republic of Ireland and that part of the UK called Northern Ireland - but a third one, the borderlands themselves.

It's a sort of interregnum between states, a DMZ, a spatial or geographic holding-pattern; a demarcation line that's fuzzy and somehow doesn't mark this political division as clearly as you think it does, or feel it should. The Border is a place unto itself.

And as we discover in The Rule of the Land (subtitled, Walking Ireland's Border), it's not a new thing. That foundation of the Irish State, a century hence, was just the latest act in a series of them, in which this area - Ulster, the North - defined itself as different from the rest of the island.

Right back to prehistoric times, local people were marking this territory as theirs. Geographical features - lakelands, bogs, plateaus, standing armies of drumlins - made for natural defences. A millennium ago, Ulster was a sealed kingdom, with few means of ingress. The fences, military installations and customs posts of the Troubles, then, can be viewed as the most recent iteration of all that.

Born in Donegal (another quite singular part of Ireland in many ways), Carr is a map-maker and author/creative-writing teacher. He brings both facets of his professional life, both skill-sets, to bear here: by traversing the entire border, recording his journey and thoughts, following the Ordnance Survey map, but also adding to it, with newly discovered crossing-points or interesting historical/culture sites.

Like the sun crossing the sky, he, and we, travel east to west. Carr's odyssey begins at Haulbowline Lighthouse in Carlingford Lough, which separates counties Louth (the South) and Down (the North).

From there he walks - and, when topography demands it, paddles a canoe with a man called Paddy Bloomer - all the way to Lough Foyle, the miniature sea lying between Derry, over there, and Donegal, over here; though ironically, this county in the South is actually the most northerly part of the island.

That's one of the most eye-opening things about The Rule of the Land: even though I'd obviously seen the Border on maps many times, it never quite hit home just how higgledy-piggledy it is. On maps of, say, Africa, the Middle East or North America, there are lots of straight lines and sharp demarcations; this is more like crazy paving, a drunken scrawl. It seems to be almost wilfully random.

In terms of latitude, Armagh comes down nearly to the south end of Leitrim and Sligo. Monaghan spikes up, far up, between Fermanagh, Tyrone and Armagh, like a fist, a brazen challenge. Our borderlands are set up more like a jigsaw puzzle than a chessboard grid.

Of course, there's a reason for this, as Carr explains. Irish county boundaries were finalised in the 19th Century, and when it came time to divide the island politically, they considered a few other options (because of ethnic population distribution and so on), but in the end, stuck to those.

And in fact, it goes back further. Aeons ago, some tribe or other decided to place standing stones in a particular spot, for whatever reason. Those stones, and that spot, were then used as boundary-points by succeeding groups, whether conquerors or planters or migrants or the originals.

Eventually, county lines were drawn to roughly correspond with these, and thus the Border, too. It's a pleasing thought that the shape of our country was in part decided by possibly arbitrary choices, over a thousand years ago, by people so different to us we can barely be classed as the same species - and yet who are, in some essential ways, the same.

The Rule of the Land is a really fine book, and works in many ways. It can be appreciated and enjoyed equally well as travelogue, social history, "straight" history, memoir, philosophical treatise. There's geography and geology and botany and zoology.

There's culture and art, politics and language, ancient relics and modern tourism (or lack of - the borderlands are grievously neglected, Carr reckons, by travellers). And if current affairs are your bag, it's all very relevant to the current situation up there: Stormont, Brexit and all the rest.

It's also wonderfully written - not strictly necessary, I realise, in a book of this nature, but it certainly amplifies my pleasure when reading. Carr has the eye of a scientist, and the facility with words of a poet. His book is dotted with lovely little turns of phrase and perceptive observations. And like good art should, it constantly surprises and offers new perspectives; you see things differently afterwards.

Before reading The Rule of the Land, I knew little about the North and the border area. Despite being so close in miles, it's always felt like the far side of the moon to many of us.

I'd passed through, crossed over, a very few times down the years. Travelling from Cavan to Tyrone for a football match in 1986, being ­nervous but excited as squaddies peered into our car. Driving to and from Belfast in 2009, my first-ever visit to that city, and feeling embarrassed at the pervasive squeeze of anxiety that only abated once we'd cleared the Border and were back in the Republic. A tiny handful of others.

The Rule of the Land explains this often shadowy, always fascinating place with great lucidity and much affection. It still feels fundamentally unknowable to me, but now I think it's not my southern ignorance which makes it thus: the place itself has always been somehow enigmatic, and remains so, maybe even to those who inhabit it.

Darragh McManus's novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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