The blight of the Border and Brexit’s toxic threat
First published in the Irish Times
Growing up during the Troubles, I wanted to run, but instead I remained rooted to the spot, in my home parish of Killeeshil in Tyrone, about three miles from the Border with Monaghan. By staying here and raising a family, I’ve managed to lift my childhood landscape out of the darkness of the past.
The trees and rivers I played in as a boy with my brothers and sisters live on in my children’s world, their familiar sounds and images translated into new stories and adventures. However, my children think I grew up somewhere else, in a grim terrain of checkpoints and military hardware, armed men in camouflage greens, bulletproof vests and balaclavas.
To their generation, the Border exists not as a line on a map, but as a contradictory series of romantic recollections about smuggling and horror stories from the Troubles. They’ve never noticed the Border, which runs so invisibly close to their lives, and they’ve never been able to locate these stories in their own landscape.
For the past 15 years or so, the Border has existed more as folklore, and in the crevices of the past, until its story took an unexpected turn in June 2016 when the UK made a political decision about immigration and voted for Brexit.Then it was as if the Border had suddenly fallen upon us from the sky again.
My granduncle Thomas Daly, to whom I’ve dedicated my latest novel Undertow, would have been 14, about the same age as my eldest daughter is now, when the Border was first created. He farmed the field I now live on, and I remember visiting his three-room cottage as a child nearly every day. He was a devoutly prayerful man, and I was in dread of calling at the start of the evening rosary. (He usually dedicated the third round of Hail Marys to the conversion of China.)
I remember his open hearth fire billowing turf smoke and a candle constantly burning under the picture of the Sacred Heart. His cottage had no electricity or tap water, but it was filled with the sweet nostalgic simmering of the Ireland de Valera had envisaged on the other side of the Border.
By the time I left home to go to university in Belfast, my granduncle had suffered several strokes. He was in his eighties and a tough old survivor, but his mind and body had begun to fail him. He hated hospitals and nursing homes, so my mother, a nurse, decided to move him into my old bedroom. There, cared for by her and my sisters, he confronted death as he had confronted everything in his life, with patience and prayer, a professional rosary-reciter to the end.
During his final illness, I would leave Belfast and go back to Killeeshil, heading out on a Saturday night with my friends and dancing to the Smiths and the Cure, then returning home slightly drunk to share a bedroom with my bed-ridden granduncle, his wheelchair and his commode. At the time, the solemnity of the sleeping arrangements suited my slightly morbid frame of mind. Never again has the boundary between sleep and death felt so thin.
One night, as I tripped home a little later than usual, I sensed some sort of commotion as soon as I opened the bedroom door. I saw the untidy blankets and my granduncle’s agitation; his haunted eyes as he whispered to himself in some sort of delirium. When he saw me, he disentangled his hand from the bedclothes and beckoned me closer, his voice rising with anxiety.
At first, I couldn’t fix the context of his monologue. Amid his ramblings, I made out stories about herds of livestock and other contraband smuggled in the dead of night across the Border, the sums of money involved and the threat of customs men and the RUC with their secret patrols. Did he think I was someone he had known years ago? Or had he, in his confusion, mistaken me for a person of authority, perhaps even a priest. My sudden appearance in the room (like a true Smiths fan dressed completely in black) must have summoned a guilty memory. This wasn’t a dream terror, I suspected, it was a panicky confession.
To my shame, I held my tongue. I shouldn’t have but I did. I should have reminded him of who I was, his 19-year-old grandnephew, not a priest or an old friend, but I was tired and a little annoyed at the inconvenience of having a sick relative in my bedroom. Part of me wanted to get to sleep, but another part of me felt compelled to silently imitate the ghosts in the room, intrigued by the sound of these tales I could never have imagined hearing from my granduncle’s pious lips.
Later, I felt guilty that I did not make him stop. In my defence, the words had tumbled from his tongue as soon as I entered the room, and they were the truth. I sat on my bed in the opposite corner and listened, keeping vigil as he whispered, feeling the secrets of history well up in the room.
I remember his voice growing shrill with nervousness as he recounted a particularly dangerous smuggling operation – as a young man he had helped a neighbour drive a large herd of pigs through mud and darkness along a hidden Border lane, the yelping of the pigs injecting an extra degree of fear as they tried to avoid an ambush by customs men or the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
This was a secret story about survival and law-breaking and my granduncle’s place in the world, a cowboy-like story about bad times, a story from a dangerous frontier. It transformed him into a youthful adventurer and a risk-taker, but here he was in his old age seeking some form of peace and forgiveness from his past.
I watched him, sunk low in his bed, his face pale and confused. That this extremely gentle-mannered and religious man could have been capable of such daring law-breaking was part of the distorting logic of Border country. In his way, my granduncle had been part of a quiet war waged against the Border, fought by daughters and wives, husbands and sons across the disputed territory of Ulster. People of his generation moved livestock, tea, butter, sugar, alcohol, and tobacco, anything that had a sufficient price deferential or scarcity to make smuggling worth the risk. This surreptitious battle to get one over on the authorities raged on for decades until the Troubles took the battle to a new and darker stage.
To my 19-year-old mind, my granduncle’s troubled monologue had little meaning or symbolism beyond that of a thrilling smuggling story told in the middle of the night. I didn’t realise it then, but his ramblings whispered a secret message in my ear, one that I’m grasping only now, after having written five novels set along the Border.
This decades-old memory represented in my granduncle’s failing mind the worst degree of catastrophe imaginable: the darkness of the Border; the overpowering fear of being caught; the danger of losing control of the distressed pigs. In his story, he had avoided detection and made it home safely. But the writer in me now suspects the opposite. The Border had not been deceived that night, in spite of his best efforts. Its darkness and mire had swallowed him whole so that years later he would lie in his sickbed in mortal fear of being sucked down into its moral abyss.
His story was a symbol, the scope of which cannot be clearly defined, the extent of lawlessness along the Border, the way Partition had set the Catholics of the North adrift. My granduncle’s generation had carried on with their lives as normal, but many of them were left untethered, without a sense of loyalty to either jurisdiction or a civic sense of responsibility. The intrusive bureaucracy of the Border made them feel rebellious, and encouraged them to behave as they felt, like outlaws. Life was harsh, and the temptation to hustle a living from the Border was too strong. What was the shame in a little smuggling, exploiting transient economic and tax differences or a loophole in the regulations?
The Border and the issues of right and wrong assailed my granduncle in his senility. He had taken financial advantage of the Border like most of his generation, but did that make his actions a sin? If so, what other transgressions needed to be acknowledged? What else had the people of the Border kept their mouths shut about? Was pretending to ignore the Border like pretending to ignore the IRA volunteers in our midst? But we were Catholics living in a dangerous republican heartland and for years we didn’t have the liberty to speak about these things.
My granduncle was a right-thinking man who thought he had done wrong. What about the other type of person who lived in the shadow of the Border? The wrong-doer who thought he was always in the right, the paramilitaries, and organised smuggling gangs, the men and women of violence who ran in the shadows.
I shudder to think what his finely-tuned conscience would have made of the illegality spawned by the Border in the intervening years – the wholesale laundering of fuel, the agricultural subsidy fraud, the illegal landfill sites and people trafficking, the contaminated meat processed at illegal abattoirs, the dubious property deals and the individuals boasting about doing the quadruple (working and claiming unemployment benefits on both sides of the Border), not to mention the IRA’s shooting and bombing campaigns.
I’ve traced these crimes through my detective novels, the rot that set into society because of the Border, the moral and civil decline that started in my grandfather’s day and has accelerated ever since. The Border was about more than checkpoints, fortified police stations and a sudden deterioration in the road surface, it signalled a distortion in the psyche and the moral view.
When I look south from my home in Killeeshil to the high dark-blue hills tantalisingly hiding Monaghan and the rest of the Republic of Ireland, I think of the new Border that is approaching with Brexit, the one that has been in progress for 18 months now, but is still shrouded in mystery. I dread to think of the new crimes that will emerge in its shadows.