You don’t have to travel too far on this tiny island to discover incredible natural phenomena, history, controversy and conflict. In this book, Garrett Carr (pictured, right) offers a rare insight to places you would rarely happen upon. He began this odyssey using a canoe and a tent on the 300-mile squiggly ‘thin as a wire’ Border with Paddy Bloomer.
Commencing his journey from east to west, he paddled his canoe through Carlingford Lough, a real fjord, and introduces the reader to the lighthouse at Haulbowline (1824). Named after the rock on which it is built, not a crack in that rock lets a drop of seawater in. One of the many historic details Carr reveals is that Haulbowline derives from a Viking word, Aale-Bolig, the ‘place of eels’.
What Carr also reveals is that the Border is not just a line between Northern Ireland and the Republic, but has a character of its own, populated by frontier people, with its own literary heritage. The idiosyncrasies of the borderland go back to Viking invasions and their legacy of lighthouses, forts, dykes, up to the architecture of the Troubles — watchtowers, garrisons, customs posts and military checkpoints.
It is not just since the foundation of the State that Ulster has established itself as different to the rest of Ireland; it has always defined itself as different. That difference mutates on the Border, where there is an intersection of political, socio-economic, literary history.
Carr explores drumlins, bogs, plateaux, rivers, boreens and peculiar buildings with a lyrical intent. He takes in the Iron Age earthworks known as the Black Pig’s Dyke, the epic of the Tain, while the gory history of the north is remembered in The Bloody Pass, named after a slaughter during the Williamite wars.
Mapping his route with anecdotes, photographs and line drawings capturing each unique locality, his book is philosophical, historical, geographical and ideal as a travelogue. Its publication is appropriately relevant as the Border could soon be the only European land border with the United Kingdom, a potential crucible.
Carr’s journey takes him all the way to Lough Foyle, the estuary of River Foyle lying between Derry and Donegal. The 25km lough coastline on the Donegal side is in dispute since partition in 1922. British parliamentarians recently declared that the whole estuary belongs to the UK alone, a dire example of what the Brexit border could mean.
The strength of passion and lyrical language in this exploration of a fragile borderland, gives this book an important resonance, acknowledging that the plantation province is no longer just an Irish-British issue.
It is an exceptional read, written by a Donegal map-maker/author and creative writing teacher.
If you’d like to listen to what Garrett Carr has to say, BBC Radio 4 has selected his book for Book of the Week, beginning tomorrow (March 13).