The Rule Of The Land by Garrett Carr
There is much talk today of the Irish border. Brexit has brought this issue to the fore and demanded we pay greater attention. But there is no Irish border, not really. The border being referred to is British, or English if you really want to nail it down, English Establishment to be exact.
The Irish people didn’t want a border. It was imposed upon them by the English Establishment under their persona of a British government. The border was designed to create a sectarian gerrymander. Given the close correlation between Protestants and Unionism, and Catholics and Nationalism, it was decided that a state-let would be partitioned off from the rest of Ireland thereby forming a Protestant and, subsequent, Unionist majority gerrymander. It worked. Or did it?
This book is about that border. It doesn’t go into all the politics involved, although there is no getting away from that side of it. Instead, the story chronicles the journey taken by Garrett Carr as he walked the length of the British imposed internal border of partition. It begins as he canoes up Carlingford Lough on the eastern Irish seaboard, and ends on Lough Foyle as he again canoes across the water to reach the OSC (Occupied Six Counties). It makes for an intriguing journey with something for everyone, including those who live on that artificial line.
The Border is a twisty, bendy, ambiguous thing. Even those who live close to it are unsure of where exactly it is. In times gone by it was blocked by British military forces in occupation of that area. Roads were dug up or obstructions placed on them to prevent their use. The people found ways to get around this. The people were indefatigable. Ultimately, the roadblocks became useless.
During the war against the colonial forces which took place during the 70’s, 80′ and 90’s, spy posts were built along the border, in particular in the south Armagh section to counter the actions of militant Irish revolutionaries. Again, these British army measures had limited success. The body-bags continued to be filled and flown home. Garrett Carr looks at this piece of Irish history as he marches through the landscape in the footsteps of Irish rebels and British colonials from centuries past.
But it’s not all war and death. There is archaeology such as the Dorsey, a prehistoric gateway to the ancient province of Ulster proper. Today visitors still flock to witness this iron-age fortification that protected the heart of Ulster in a warlike society. The area is saturated with ancient sites and stories, some of which the author visits or mentions.
As a media outlet familiar with the border region, Rebel Voice was curious to see how the area was presented by Carr. He appears to be from Donegal, itself a border county, and recalls some of his family’s visits to the line of partition. But he doesn’t strike Rebel Voice as a Republican, and context is everything. His presentation of the justifiable war against the British forces of occupation leaves a lot to be desired. But perhaps this site is being too harsh on him. Perhaps he was merely toning it down to appeal to a larger demographic.
There are 22 chapters, each full of interesting information on the Border. Carr charts unknown crossing points, some substantial and some little more than children placing planks across a stream that marks the international line of demarcation. He meets the locals as he traverses a beautiful land, and fairly accurately relates their wry humour and approach to life. And their suspicions. He is an unknown moving across a place where undercover British soldiers, customs officials and MI5 agents still ply their sordid wares. As he didn’t seek permission to cross private land, Rebel Voice is surprised that he didn’t get a trip in the boot of a Toyota Avensis, for the purposes of a little chat. Perhaps he did get some prior permissions.
Some of the most interesting details, and most enjoyable chapter, for this reviewer was that on the Fermanagh, Cavan, Leitrim junction, titled A Peak, a Pot, a Tunnel. In this Carr meets with some potholers who are currently mapping the labyrinth of underground tunnels that sweep under the green hills and fields. The sinkholes that dot the region are referred to as Pots. Most are full of water.Many are interconnected. One was said to be the source of the mighty River Shannon, but that has now been adjusted and the source moved over the Border into Fermanagh. It may be moved again as the investigators make new discoveries. It was fascinating to read of how the cavers have to dive into frigid waters, and fight their way into small caves only to find it all changed the next time they visit. It’s a precarious place.
Garrett Carr, at times, delves into the socio-economic history and reality of life on the Border. He discusses the incidence of smuggling, a given in any border region. He meets with those who attended a famous ballroom from which many marriages and families stemmed. He discusses the calamity that is the recent life of Seán Quinn, once Ireland’s richest man before his own greed and Free State jealousies brought him tumbling down. The repercussions from that episode in Irish banking and business shenanigans are still being felt across the area today.
As much as most in Ulster will think themselves au fait with the border, there is much in this book that you will not know. This includes a man who builds stone reproductions of ancient forts and castles, which can be seen in strange places upon his farm. There is the woman who won the lottery and decided to rejuvenate her hometown by buying a massive, abandoned mill. Carr is not overly sympathetic to her plight as she seems to struggle to find acceptance locally. There are the owners of large estates, some who have embraced Irish nationalism and some who haven’t but now hide behind fortifications in a throw-back to olden times. There is also the laughable tale of one local parvenu who tried desperately but couldn’t find entry into the world of the landed gentry, and resolved to outdo them in whatever he did. His efforts appear crass. It makes for wonderful reading.
The prose in this is very good. Carr is a fine writer. His descriptions of the land and people are often taciturn but effective. He is sparse with emotion but it works. The people there require no love from a stranger, nor do they seek approval. Carr recognises that the land and then the border shaped the people into a wholly independent group who will plot their own path regardless. One wonders what they will make of Brexit. New regulations mean new opportunities for smuggling and making money. But they are mostly a Nationalist and Republican people so might be conflicted in part. What price your ideals?
There are maps to chart the path of the adventurer as he stumbles through marsh and stomps via woodland. The stories may have the effect of making the reader hop into the car and set off to explore the sites covered here. There are worse ways to spend a Sunday.
Sult scale rating: 7 out of 10. This book is more interesting than Rebel Voice thought it would be. Even an Irish site such as this can be caught out by the wealth of ancient history and archaeology to be found along the Border. It can be easy to forget just how blessed we are here with tales and treks. This book is a nice reminder of all that we don’t see, even when it’s just down the road. Sometimes it takes a visitor to the area to remind us.