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Monday 25 September 2017

Where I am living, the border just doesn't exist

Home is the republic but exciting Derry is my centre for culture and shopping, says Kathy Donaghy

A bright brand new day: Kathy Donaghy on the Peace Bridge over the River Foyle
A bright brand new day: Kathy Donaghy on the Peace Bridge over the River Foyle
Troubled history: a funeral passes the mural in the Bogside featuring Bishop Edward Daly tending to a victim of Bloody Sunday.
Chequered history: Shipquay Gate
The Battle of the Bogside at the start of the Troubles
Derry illuminated as part of the City of Culture celebrations

Kathy Donaghy

Home – that intangible thing. How do you know you're home? For me, it was always my first glimpse of the River Foyle snaking its way into Derry City as I made the journey home from Dublin.

As the lights of the Maiden City came into view, it was always a relief and a joy to realise that a long journey was almost over.

My heart didn't recognise the Border between this beautiful city and my home 20 minutes away in Inishowen, north Donegal.

My way home took me out of the city, following the route of the Foyle, into rural Donegal, where the lights of the city twinkled in the distance.

The Border dictates that these are two separate states, but in reality the ties that bind this part of Donegal and Derry city have always been so strong that the two seem to belong to one another.

The fortunes of both have always been caught up with one another ever since Colmcille, full of remorse, left his native home and set sail down the Foyle for Iona, stopping at Inishowen Head to take a last look back at his beloved Derry.

In the early 1920s, when the lines on the map were being laid down to decide down exactly where the Border should be drawn, strong appeals were made – largely on economic grounds – for the incorporation of Derry City within the Free State. Of course, this didn't happen and the rest is history.

For people who haven't grown up in a border area, the concept of a border might seem like a black and white issue. The reality is that it's fluid and complex. Crossing a border changes everything and changes nothing at the same time.

When you come from Inishowen, you find yourself in the strange position of having to cross the Border twice to get there from most parts of the country.

My own journey home from Dublin for many years meant crossing the Monaghan/Tyrone border at Aughnacloy, then crossing back into the Republic just past Culmore, outside Derry, to get into Donegal.

In the old days, these crossings could be long and protracted. Now you don't really notice. The checkpoints are long gone and there's hardly a sign that you have in fact entered a different state.

Derry was always in my consciousness as a youngster growing up. It was our nearest big town. People from my part of Donegal went there to work in their droves. We went shopping there – our trips in the 1970s often disrupted by bomb scares. At times it felt like living on the edge of a warzone but being lucky enough to be able to escape it.

Throughout the Troubles the relationship between Derry and Donegal was interchangeable, often driven by economics. When the price of petrol went up in the Budget here, drivers fled across the Border. When petrol prices fell here, there would be queues of Derry drivers at petrol stations this side of the Border, as happens today.

City dwellers swarm in their droves to Inishowen's beaches on sunny Sundays. The traffic goes the other way when the sales in the shops start.

Every day people from this side of the Border visit the city on their doorsteps to get their hair done, go to an indoor play centre for their child's birthday or to go to the cinema for a night out.

The currency is different but because it's something you're used to, you become accustomed to changing money or to keeping a separate sterling compartment in your wallet.

Of course politicians in the South will often advise people not to shop across the Border and to "support the local economy". In this part of the world, it's not that simple. People, goods and services move in both directions all the time, even if in tough times it makes it hard for local traders.

But for many people "local" also means the city on their doorstep that just happens to be across the Border.

Because it's a city, big music acts, theatre and arts events are attracted to Derry and people from Inishowen have always tapped into that.

Equally, Derry people have always looked to Inishowen for holidays and weddings, with many city people choosing to have their big day at a rural church here.

It's a symbiotic relationship that has existed as long as the city has. When the first shirt factories were built, employing nearly 13,000 people by 1897, the industry spawned a network of outstations across Donegal.

While the shirt industry has diminished greatly, that kind of relationship continues to this day.

People often talk about a "border mentality". This derogatory phrase implies some kind of closed mindedness on the part of those who live within a few miles of the Border. I tend to think that when you live on or near a border, you are forced to look at things differently.

You understand deeply how by crossing a border, in the space of a few miles a place is transformed into something else without really changing at all.

And it's as if by magic the city I have known all my life has been transformed too. As the UK City of Culture celebrations draw to a close, it's amazing to see the impact of a year's events.

The Derry of today is unrecognisable from its sectarian riven past. Streets that were pockmarked by violence have become home to a bustling cafe culture. Today, you're more likely to hear classical piano wafting from buildings than political rhetoric.

Standing on the banks of the river earlier this year, during the city's hosting of the Fleadh Cheoil, felt like being somewhere else entirely. People had travelled from all over the country, and indeed all over the world. The city, thronged with people, the sound of traditional music everywhere, felt more like San Francisco than Derry. Indeed, in October Lonely Planet named it the fourth-best city to visit after San Francisco, Amsterdam and Hyderabad.

Who could have foreseen that the first time the prestigious Turner Prize would be held outside England, it would be held in Derry? Or that the iconic Other Voices music sessions, synonymous with Dingle, would head north, not once but twice.

Standing on the Peace Bridge, which links the mainly Catholic Cityside and the Waterside, where most of the city's Protestant population live, you realise that borders are being broken down all the time.

It's a testament to how far the city has come. These changes are welcome on both sides of the Border or whatever side of the bridge you live on.

Irish Independent

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