Monday 21 October 2019

Fionnán Sheahan: Hard Border fears in the Tidy Town on the Brexit frontier


Vibrant community: Louise Duffy, co-ordinator of Glaslough Tidy Towns, in front of the rebuilt railway station signal box
Vibrant community: Louise Duffy, co-ordinator of Glaslough Tidy Towns, in front of the rebuilt railway station signal box

Fionnán Sheahan

A glossy coffee table photobook contained the latest effort to wipe this charming part of the country off the map.

Published 18 months ago, an illustration in 'Ireland's Ancient East', identified Monaghan as "Armagh".

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North Monaghan is known colloquially as the 'bump in the border' as it is surrounded by Fermanagh, Tyrone and Armagh. Border villages like Glaslough have grown resilient from efforts to isolate it.

Partition in 1921 saw the picturesque village detached from its hinterland of local estate villages of Caledon in Co Tyrone and Tynan in Co Armagh.

Glaslough was the first station south of the Border on the Great Northern Railway route between Cavan and Belfast until the line closed on the Republic side in the late 1950s.

The severing of transport links continued in the 1970s when the British Army blew up local bridges at prevent IRA activity along the Border.

It meant a far longer round trip but relationships and cultural ties survived. Peace came dropping slowly. The crossing points remained closed well beyond the IRA ceasefire and the Good Friday Agreement of the 1990s.

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The bridges at Annaghroe and Knockaginny, which span the Blackwater River outside Glaslough, were replaced only nine years ago - historically, they were the last Border crossing points to be restored.

This week, Glaslough was firmly on the map again as it was awarded the title of Ireland's tidiest town. It was also confirmed as the country's tidiest village for the second year in a row.

It's the biggest event to happen here since Paul McCartney chose St Salvator's Church as the location for his ill-fated marriage to Heather Mills in 2002 with a celebrity-packed guest list.

Although the village previously took the accolade in 1978, Tidy Towns co-ordinator Louise Duffy feels there's far more involved in winning now as it moves with the times to be more in keeping with environmental awareness.

"It's not just about flowers and tidiness now. The name doesn't quite fit the competition," she says.

Glaslough (pronounced Glass Lough, derived from the Irish translation 'calm or green lake') is a model for green living. It excels in the areas of biodiversity, sustainability and spreading green awareness across the community.

Sammy Leslie of Castle Leslie. Pic Steve Humphreys
Sammy Leslie of Castle Leslie. Pic Steve Humphreys

READ MORE: Revealed: Glaslough, Co Monaghan wins this year's Tidy Towns competition

This past year, the village moved towards planting perennial species consistent with those in the adjoining Castle Leslie estate, like lavenders, geraniums, fuchsias and roses. Hawthorn, whitethorn and blackthorn bushes have featured more prominently.

Rather than the usual golf course green short cuts, grass verges have grown longer to encourage wild flowers.

The committee doesn't use pesticides, harvests its own rainwater and creates its own compost for flower beds.

Every family in the area gets a 'Greener Glaslough' brochure - a guide to greener living - to encourage them to join the cause.

The rebuilding of the long-abandoned local railway station signal box was done by local volunteers using recycled bricks and windows.

The wetlands and allotments add to the sense of community. There is a seamless interaction with the 1,000-acre estate adjoining the village.

READ MORE: Tidy Town winners Glaslough reveal the five key ingredients for the big win

A sculpture of a horse made from horse shoes in Glaslough village.
A sculpture of a horse made from horse shoes in Glaslough village.

The whole Tidy Towns venture costs about €25,000 to run. Aside from a small grant from Monaghan County Council, the rest is collected through fundraising locally.

The local committee also keeps an eye on what other Tidy Towns contenders are up to, visiting other high-ranking towns and villages in Keadue and Castlecoote in Co Roscommon, Terryglass in Co Tipperary, Westport in Co Mayo, and Ennis in Co Clare.

"We have people coming here too. There is speculation every day wondering where people are from.

"You learn from everybody else. It's nice to see other people's ideas," Ms Duffy says.

The bad news for the competition is Glaslough now has more plans for making the village even more appealing.

However, being so close to the Border means Brexit threatens to drag the community back to darker times.

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Glaslough's Tidy Towns win coincided with the release of Boris Johnson's Border checks plans this week.

Ms Duffy admits there are concerns about Brexit and the prospect of a hard Border.

"We are very fearful. There's a lot of people who travel to and from the North. A lot of businesses will certainly be affected," she says.

Around the village with a population of just 500 people, there are a staggering 57 small businesses.

Having grown up with the British army checkpoints, Ms Duffy feels it would be "unbelievable" to return to those days of searches.

Come what may, she feels the sense of community will bind together the area that has a mix of Catholic and Protestant populations. "We have gotten on so well for years because of how we respect each other's religious backgrounds.

"The community has been strong and vibrant from people willing to come together. All of the adversity made us stronger," she says.

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The Tidy Towns award wasn't the only silverware to come to Glaslough this week.

Castle Leslie won the people's choice award for best place to stay in Ireland at the Hotel & Catering Review gold medal awards for 2019.

Sammy Leslie, the trustee of the estate, who runs the hotel, spa, equestrian centre and cookery school on site, points out its the third win in a row.

The Leslie family's links to the village date back 350 years.

After buying the estate, Dr John Leslie of Glaslough, the Protestant High Church Bishop of Clogher, wrote in 1666: "The land I assure is the worst and most unprofitable in the Province of Ulster."

Following decades of decay in the last century, under Ms Leslie's guidance the estate has returned to its former glory with more developments planned, in keeping with its heritage. Twenty guest bedrooms have been added to the lodge.

It's a far cry from when the Troubles weighed so heavily on the area.

Among the atrocities, the IRA carried out three murders in the locality in the late 1970s. After the kidnapping of a member of his own staff, Sammy's late father Desmond Leslie wrote to the Minister for Justice calling for a greater Garda presence. He complained that the area was becoming a "criminal's paradise", claiming after the closure of the garda station "the wide boys, smugglers, cattle-rustlers and Provos moved in".

The absence of any formal border often prompts guests to ask if the hotel takes euros or Sterling.

Ms Leslie feels Brexit has brought difficulties already through currency fluctuations on Sterling and she says tourists always want certainty.

"A border causes confusion. Confusion creates cautiousness," she says.

Mixed with the worries about what Brexit will bring is an optimism, however.

"The Border area is one of the most beautiful in the country. Everyone will realise what is happening and figure it out. We'll all survive. We've been through worse," Ms Leslie says.

Irish Independent

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