This beautiful and moving book has a simple premise. Garrett Carr, with some help from a friend, travels by foot and boat the borderline that runs between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, from Carlingford to Lough Foyle. A straightforward idea, but one that plunges us into the complications of thousands of years of history, and of our indistinct, blurred future.
Hastily drawn up during the time of partition in the early 1920s, and thought by its creators to be merely a temporary marking, the official modern border between the two entities has now lasted almost one hundred years. It has seen its symbolic importance wax and wane, with World Wars and border campaigns giving way to sometimes easier eras, but its definition and importance in our sense of ourselves was hammered onto the map throughout the Troubles.
It is this border, the heavily fortified and oppressive crossing points, the destroyed bridges and craters on unmarked roads, that looms so large in our thoughts since the EU referendum result. The folk memory of those black times is what raises the stakes in the UK’s coming negotiations with the Republic and their 27 confreres.
Since the Good Friday Agreement, the border, while still there, seemed to shimmer rather than define. Bridges were built, roads reopened, ‘normal life’ restored. But what happens after Brexit is the question that dogs Carr’s footsteps, what will come with another change? Will the Senator George Mitchell Peace Bridge have sentries posted at either end? The future is uncertain, and will be drenched with incongruities, opportunities and fresh 21st century divisions.
Carr though, reaches further back than our contemporary questions, referencing Celtic myth to tell the story of the Tain Bó Cúailnge, when Queen Medb saw her Connaught fighters founder on the rocks of Cu Cúchulainn and an Ulster bull. He walks the Black Pig’s Dyke, which was mythically created by an enchanted pig, giving poetic life to Iron Age earthworks created some time two thousand years ago. Myths and legends perhaps, but proof that we are not the first people to confront these issues.
Cu Cúchulainn in battle, from T. W. Rolleston, Myths & Legends of the Celtic Race, 1911; illustration by J. C. Leyendecker
With his keen eye, Carr eloquently manages to give each landscape a connection with the history from where it springs. He’s not the first writer to walk these roads, for example Colm Toibin in 1987 took the same path during the clang and discord of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, but Carr’s gentle, precise observance more suits these fraught times, and his ability to connect history, landscape and people creates a sheer pleasure of a book. The kind of pleasure that comes from a journey well made.
Through well-turned and delicate prose, Carr brings to life a place that has been shaped and buffeted by the winds of history. What he does magnificently is to give a voice to those who exist on or around the border. With genuine compassion and empathy, he picks out the lives of the ‘borderlanders’, these lives in which the line on the map brings challenges but also opportunity.
On his way he notes the fascinating story of Barry McGuigan, crossing the border eight times as a child in Clones to punch a hanging bag, endowing him with a seeming fluid superpower. Not only fighting for both states, but also seeming to deliver a dual cultural identity which both defined him, but also let him duck and weave from those who would claim him. ‘Double the country, double the opportunity’.
Beyond the famed straddlers like the Clones Cyclone and Sean Quinn the infamous concrete magnate, Carr emphasises the ordinary border folk he meets. There’s a particular charm in most reactions to his declaration that ‘he is walking the border’, with people responding as if it was the most normal thing in the world and that three such travellers have passed by this morning.
The building of a wall, imaginary or real, is held up as a simple panacea for shifting identities at the centre, as the post-Cold War endeavour of making the lines on the map shimmer rather than define, and the '90s tectonic plates of nationalism and globalism have erupted in our faces. When the centre cannot hold, it is at the edges that the effect will be felt keenest. Carr understands this, as he camps in isolated fields, and discovers the lonely farmers, holed up in the grey areas of Europe. His tact and canny kindness leaps from every encounter as he saunters ever onwards, and a tenderness allows us empathy with the lives of those with feet on either side of the line.
So we meet widows of the dark and murderous Troubles era, when the border provided the backdrop to the sectarian struggle for what kind of government held sway across either side. We meet the folly builder in County Derry, the farmer who grips the kitchen worktop as his mind wanders back to events of the past. And in each encounter, Carr’s compassion shines through. He seems not to be grasping for epiphany, but rather something more honest, a map of the complications and opportunities we create when we divide and demarcate.
Carr is Donegal born and now Belfast based, giving him a border life of his own, and one of the most affecting parts of the book is where he drops his observer status and delves into his own past, to tell of crossing the border with his father. The moving tale of an ordinary memory, a man buying jalopies in one state and bringing them over to the other side, brings us closer to understanding the questions and passion that inspired this quixotic journey.
This rambling man, and his occasional boon companion, the legendary engineer, artist and boatman Paddy Bloomer, take us through the fields and bridges of the line on the map that defines, blurs and separates both our everyday lives and our history. It is to all our benefit that Carr has fashioned a glittering, mysterious and satisfying record of such a timely expedition.
The Rule of the Land is published by Faber & Faber and is now available to buy. Garrett Carr is also helping to facilitate Sounding Out on Brexit, which takes place as part of the Imagine Belfast Festival of Ideas and Politics on March 25 at Queen's University Belfast's Sonic Research Arts Centre. Click here register to attend the free event.