For the first time in my life the Border has opened up and I feel free...
First published in The Irish Times
Writing is a lonely business with so much time spent locked inside oneself. Increasingly, I find myself browsing the internet, searching writing websites for residencies, retreats and teaching posts.
At times, I feel like a desperate bachelor trying his luck with a lonely heart’s column. Forty-something crime fiction writer living in Tyrone seeks public institution to share his passion for words and landscapes. Short-term relationships or potential soul mates considered.
Early last year, a link on the Irish Writers’ Centre website quickened my pulse. A new initiative was being launched by the centre and Cavan County Council Arts Office, seeking to employ a writer-in-residence to support, mentor and provide curation experience to groups across the county.
I live less than 10 minutes from the Border at Aughnacloy, and the thought of crossing it on a regular basis to meet writers and readers on the other side of a political brink made my spine tingle with excitement.
It was March, and the shrill, sickly tone of Brexit hung over everything in the North. The post seemed to offer exactly what I was looking for – escape, a chance to meet new people and hear their stories, and a measure of financial security for six months. I wrote a two-page letter, outlining my longing for the Cavan landscape, emailed it and prepared myself to hear nothing more about it.
To my surprise, a few months later, I received an emailed contract from the Irish Writers Centre, offering me the post and outlining a proposed programme of engagement. I read the contract several times. It felt like a mandate to cross borders, an itinerary into the depths of the Ulster landscape, an order to discover new co-ordinates on the uneven map of my province.
I would be travelling to places I had never seen before but were just over an hour’s journey away – Cootehill, Ballyjamesduff, Virginia, Bailieborough, Belturbet and Cavan town, a whole world that had been cut off to me because of the Border.
During the Troubles, the Border had loomed large in my childhood landscape, a zone of fortification and armed soldiers, big with omens, gloom and tragedy. I remember the imposing military sangar at Aughnacloy, and how it dislocated the landscape, but was also part of it, seeming to change colour according to the weather and how close you were, dark and shadowy when you drove beneath it, and shiny and green in the rain and sunshine.
The Border opened up a wide gap between the North and the South, and Cavan always lay tantalisingly hidden behind the high, dark blue hills of south Tyrone. In my imagination, it existed as a lost or secret world beyond the darkness of the Troubles, out of reach of the swooping presence of military helicopters and the lurking presence of soldiers.
So, at first, the residency felt like a form of literary refuge or asylum. However, I was hoping that words and stories weren’t just an escape from Brexit, but rather a way of re-imagining it and the Border itself. Long before we had maps and their multitude of lines, we had stories through which we knew our place in the world and could project our fears, loves and memories upon the landscape.
The thorn-hedged fields of my grandfather’s farm in south Tyrone all had Irish names, and there was a story for each one, even the most rush-filled and marshy. Their names described features in the landscape, trees, rocks, rivers, or events that took place there. Sitting over a turf-fire in his little cottage, he used to repeat them to me after saying his evening rosary, their strange Gaelic names – Crocarney, Crocgara, Crocboy – joining up and rhyming to make a compressed poem that was also a map, one of countless memory maps that with the dying of his generation have sadly disappeared up the darkness of a chimney flue.
The Border is a solitary line on a map, but it’s also a story, the story of us as we move across it in our innumerable journeys, a story imbued with personal and cultural memories, a story that we share inside and between ourselves, and marks us as separate from the rest of the people living on these islands.
On my initial visits as writer-in-residence to Cavan, I was struck by how similar the countryside, the layout of the villages and their architecture, even the place-names, were to those in Tyrone. Everything felt eerily familiar yet subtly different. There’s a deeper sense of attraction in places that are only slightly strange, rather than exotic or alien, and the invisible Border now felt like a line of symmetry, the two Ulster landscapes mirroring each other in tangled patterns and echoes, the shared ghosts of history.
My first date took me to a room full of poets in an upstairs room in Virginia library. As the evening sun faded, we had tea together and chatted. More poets joined us. It took me a while to find the right tone. My words were tentative. I squirmed nervously in my seat, feeling that special discomfort that comes over a writer as he tries to explain his career in crime fiction to an audience of published, award-winning poets. I tried to play it by ear, ask a few questions and home in on something they said.
This was a book no one would ever publish. It was just about mud and rain. So I killed off my first character, made my second a detective and my career in crime fiction was born
For me, landscape is everything, I told them. The first book I wrote was set around Lough Neagh, and after about 40,000 words, I realised this was a book that no one would ever publish because it was just about mud and rain. So, I killed off my first character in chapter one, and then I made my second a detective, and thus my career in crime fiction was born.
The poets smiled, and, heartened, I continued.
Nature writing with dead bodies was what I did, really. I was a thwarted poet, who had found his metre and form in the conventions of the detective novel. I talked about my love of the Tyrone landscape, its whitethorn hedges and gurgling bogs, its mood-enhancing patterns of light and darkness. When I mentioned drumlins and lakes, I could feel the wave of relief and pleasure pass through the room. I learned quickly that landscape is the warm flame burning behind the thoughts of Cavan people.
Over the past five months, I’ve read and listened to writers up and down the county, in ancient church halls, in shiny new libraries, in a Bailieborough bar that only opens a few times a year, in theatres, hotel conference rooms, in a restored picture house and a terrace house. All sorts of spaces have opened up for me on the other side of the Border. I’ve shared stories, poems and reminiscences.
Women, men and children busy writing and speaking, making meaning out of their landscapes and relating to one and other. People who had come from all over Ireland, the UK and the world, washed up by the tides of history and migration, to find their home in Cavan. I’ve heard stories from the deeply rural parishes of the Border counties, as well as from the Philippines, Nigeria, Holland and all over the UK.
I’ve discovered that the Cavan landscape is perfect for claustrophiles and daydreamers, the drumlins rising to obscure the horizon, the roads constantly winding and dipping, each townland bounded, almost compartmentalised by a warren of hills and mirror-like loughs.
The landscape feels cosily small, and I wonder is that why it has bred so many wonderful writers – Dermot Healy, Michael Harding and Tom MacIntyre, to name but a few. Every parish seems to resemble a lonely garret, with its own resident writer, poet or artist studying their reflection in the landscape.
So many stories took form during my residency, and I was honoured to be trusted with them. Not surprisingly, the notion of borders and how they shape us was repeatedly forced to the surface. Invited to edit the latest anthology of poetry from the talented Litlab poets, I pored over their descriptions of the UIster landsape with the delight of a photographer finding a strange new lens to view a familiar landscape, the same quilt of slanting fields, turloughs, and introverted country lanes, the same people and the same language, the same intricacies of a society overshadowed by political forces.
Their references to the Border were refreshingly oblique and sometimes gently humorous as in Honor Duff’s It was all about Borders, a poem about her father, a customs officer, taking up a post at the Border crossing in Leitrim.
In her childhood imagination, she confuses the political border with other borders: “Mary O’Loughlin’s mother/ had a beautiful border,/ so did Pamela Parker’s,/ each one full of flowers, Delphiniums and Lupins…”
The poem ends with her disappointment at seeing a photograph of her father at the Border, sitting astride a wooden-barrier on an empty road, no blooms in sight: “They should have dispatched/ Mrs O’Loughlin and Mrs Parker/ to stage a floral spectacular.”
Garret Igoe’s Ordnance Officer also masterfully combines the personal and the political in the innocent gaze of a child, describing his father, an ordnance officer, on a difficult operation: “What did I know of your fear?/ You knelt on quiet border roads,/ slender fingers making safe a device/ for the robin beside you in a bush…”
In late September, news of Kevin Lunney’s abduction and torture broke as I drove into a rain-sodden Cavan town. The streets had looked open and cheery the week before, but now the town seemed muted and depressed. People on the pavements walked with lowered heads, stooped shoulders. It crossed my mind that the route I had taken over the Border that morning might have been the same one as the kidnappers. The story was shocking. Would anyone write about it or bring it up in conversation? Wasn’t their something important to say, something within reach at the tip of our tongues.
Lunney’s ordeal confirmed all the media stereotypes about the Border counties as unliveable and backward places, where violent men still lurked in their gruesome sheds. There were no borders for people like that, just gathering points for smuggling operations and criminality.
For weeks, I couldn’t fit it all together, the Border of my childhood during the Troubles, the Border of the kidnappers and criminals, and the Border of Cavan’s writers and poets. They existed as a series of unconnected fragments as I drove from library to library, talking in enthusiastic tones about landscape and writing.
Driving home one night, I heard on the radio that the authorities were resuming their search in a remote bog close to the Border in Monaghan for the remains of Columba McVeigh, one of the Disappeared and the brother of my friend Eugene.
Even though I couldn’t see the machinery and diggers on my journeys, I could picture them in my mind, hoisting bucketfuls of tree roots and black peat into the air, mud spilling and rain falling on the disturbed ground. I could hear the water gurgling under the peat beds, droplets cascading down crevices that in my mind became deep trenches of darkness that threatened to open up before me. As they had opened up for the bodies of the Disappeared, the men and women whom the IRA had tried to wipe off the face of the earth.
Storytelling helps us find ways to be human and interact with outsiders. Michael Harding calls stories a peasant craft and claims “the possibility of Europe was born in the antics of storytelling”
Winter came, and I learned that land and water are always sinking and rising in Cavan, glistening turloughs appearing overnight. On sunless days, I drove under the rim of black clouds, feeling bodiless, stateless, with hundreds of rain-drenched drumlins stretching away inland. One drizzly day in December, flooded roads to Cootehill left me lost for an afternoon in Patrick Kavanagh’s fairyland, car bumping along lanes with a green Mohican of grass down the middle. I had a strong sense of dissolving into the landscape.
More spaces opened up to me, more rooms full of storytellers and readers, more chambers of reflection. In Belturbet, I ran a writing workshop as part of a training day for arts facilitators. It was therapy. Not for the participants but for me. It was part of a conversation I had been having with myself for years about inner landscapes and borders. I left Belturbet with a high energy.
I could see how stories were a way of belonging and relating, a common soil, where words and thoughts could settle and interact, and turn into a force that might bring down borders. Storytelling helps us find ways to be human and interact with outsiders. Michael Harding calls stories “a peasant craft”, and claims that “the possibility of Europe was born in the antics of storytelling”.
I’ve spent my life in Tyrone driving east or west or north, and it’s been a special privilege to be able to travel in a new direction, over the Border, into the south….of Europe
I’ve spent my life in Tyrone driving east or west or north, and it’s been a special privilege to be able to travel in a new direction, over the Border, into the south….of Europe. On clear days, the winter sun rises before me as if pointing to where I’m meant to be. I cross the Border at Aughnacloy in the blink of an eye, and then the sun shines and shines, the landscape growing clearer and lighter the further I drive.
Something about the journey makes me glow. I can’t express it in any other way. For the first time in my life, the Border has opened up and I feel free. The sun has risen on a new landscape. The Ulster that I know and love stretches much further south than I ever imagined, packed with meaning and stories, writers and poets, and the feeling that I have is sublime. I belong to a web of crafted words, shared literary inheritance and enduring landscapes, a web that stretches into the past, but also into the future.
I now see the Border in a different way, as a perimeter that organises itself around our journeys and our lives, rather than the other way round, that our journeys are stories plotted by the landscape, and that just as previous generations have had to do, we will find our way again in the Ulster landscape that we call home.
The people of the Border counties are artful and rich with storytelling, and their stories are a form of revision and resistance to the journalistic stereotypes. Unlike politics and borders, stories don’t oversimplify us into binary terms. They remind us that no one ever has the final word.