Brexit and the lost border
Once a place of suspicion, the way to the North became just a line on a map. Now, as the UK prepares to leave the EU, will the area of natural beauty be off limits once again
We have gotten used to Ireland's border as just a line on a map. We like it that way, cruising across unimpeded, requiring no more effort than a small mental adjustment from kilometres to miles. But now Brexit has unsettled us. There is a general anxiety that the border will be an afterthought in whatever deal London and the EU arrive at. The return of patrols and export duty is threatened and we are all learning terms like Customs Union and Common External Tariff. We are realising that the open border was never an on-going certainty. It was just a 20-year blip, a short deviation from the main story: a defended frontier.
I grew up near the border in Donegal and remember how it was tied up with security, and associated with smuggling, suspicion and danger. I was a school boy but I'd travel into Northern Ireland with my father sometimes. He would go silent as we approached the army fortress overlooking the road. I remember the guns, crackling voices on CB radios, and the cold sensation of being assessed and processed. You did not have to be worried about guns or bombs to find the border troubling.
It was also a personal confrontation; crossing the line seemed to challenge one's identity, asking who you thought you were and where you thought you had business to be. Where exactly, the border seemed to ask, does your sense of belonging end?
Perhaps this was why my father was silent. Such angst was a high cost just to go and look at the scenery in Malin or get cheaper curtains in Strabane (although for my family, the latter was worth it). Perhaps you already needed a self-examining streak for the border to affect you in that way. For the rest, there were the soldiers on the roadside, leaning in your car window and asking questions in a much more direct manner.
That is decades ago. I recently returned to the border and instead of hurrying over the line, eager to get away, I have walked it lengthways, east to west, taking many weeks over the journey. I was interested in the Brexit vote but also the border's past; hiking to prehistoric tombs as well as smuggling trails and the sites of military installations.
My journey was a form of research; I didn't expect to appreciate the border in a touristic sort of way. Yet that is what happened. The confrontational border is gone, and the open border reveals many fascinating places. I find myself recommending places along the borderline like I'm on commission (which I'm not, by the way).
The border's lakes and waterways seem under-appreciated, such as Melvin and Lough Foyle. Cuilagh Mountain could probably get a lot more visitors too. It is a three-mile-long ridge, well suited to play frontier, and is a great hike. The Cavan Burren is also special.
Here, thousands of years ago, the Irish used stone slabs and boulders to build tombs and walls and now it is one of the most archeologically significant sites in Ireland. There is a kind of confrontation in these stones, you are forced to downscale your sense of yourself, for a while anyway, and it is probably no harm. The tombs sit mostly ignored, among the trees, there is no car park and no guided tours. The Cavan Burren straddles the border and such things are only beginning to develop now.
Play word association with the phrase 'South Armagh' and people will still reply with 'smuggling' and 'IRA'. It will take time for South Armagh's stretch of border to gain new associations, but it has a great asset in Slieve Gullion; a mountain with a particularly affecting presence. Walking the border meant I was, for a few days, caught in its orbit. I noticed local people glancing up at the mountain a lot too, perhaps using it to calculate the afternoon weather, or just to remind themselves that they were still at home, that they had not wandered too far from their base rock. There are a number of routes up the mountain and local initiatives promote them for visitors.
"It's all opening up around here now," a Jonesborough businessman said to me - a few months before the Brexit vote - clearly pleased to see me in my hiking boots.
Slieve Gullion's peak is a place of legends; a pile of rocks with a passageway into the centre was the home of a goddess called Calliagh Berra. The reality, that this is a 5,000-year-old passage tomb built to align with the sun on winter solstice, is more startling.
Gullion is surrounded by small hills and many were topped with military watchtowers during the Troubles. The towers are now gone and the hills can be rewarding climbs in themselves.
"Many of our panoramic viewpoints are highly recommended by British Military Intelligence," it says on the website of a local hill walkers group. I found military remnants on one peak, sections of tubing cracked with age, odd planks and iron hoops.
There was once a watchtower on the neatly conical hill west of Forkhill. The steep sides are covered in spruce and ferns and it's rather pretty. I was told about a path to the top but I missed it and would have to rate my route to the peak 'challenging'.
I couldn't find out the name of the hill either. I went into a pub near the base and asked a customer. "There's no name on it," he insisted. Coming from Donegal, where every pile of rocks has a name, I found this hard to believe.
I wondered if I was experiencing another Troubles remnant; a caginess that emerges in the presence of strangers. Tell them nothing. When the army claimed the hill, they called it Foxfield.
Brexit won't lead the deployment of soldiers along the frontier, but customs posts and spot-checks will once again make the border a place of examination and, perhaps, self-examination.
So, it turns out that my exploration happened during a fragile time, soon to end. It will be a shame if the border is lost again, just as it was on the cusp of being found.
It could and should be something intriguing in Ireland's imagination - a living place rather than just an unsettling obstacle or inconvenience to be put behind you as soon as possible.
The Rule of the Land by Garrett Carr is out now (Faber & Faber, €17.99)