Here's to bandit country: the Irish border, writing's new frontier

Once overshadowed by Dublin and Belfast, the border regions are finally being recognised for inspiring some of Ireland’s best writing – and it’s not all about Brexit

Ask anyone where they think about when they think about Irish writing and they’ll probably say Dublin or Belfast. When it comes to writers from the border regions, they may mention Brian Friel or Seamus Heaney, but for most people, the border between the republic and Northern Ireland is usually regarded as an area whose existence is contentious, where terms are unfavourable and the writing is characteristically unfeminine. It is an area that Labour’s former secretary of state for Northern Ireland Merlyn Rees referred to as “bandit country” in 1974, and perceptions have been slow to shift.

Yet the region has catalysed some of the country’s finest writing and never more so than today. Since the Good Friday agreement, the border region is no longer the insular, provincial place you’ve read about. These days it’s the setting for hit TV comedies about teenage friendships, Michael Portillo train documentaries, pioneering city of culture bids, and parody Twitter accounts. Suddenly the border seems the whip-smart, funny and sophisticated breeding ground its inhabitants always knew it was. It’s also become a political centre of attention again, thanks to Brexit, and its writers and artists are no longer willing to relinquish control of its narrative.

There’s me at the Brexit negotiations.

— The Irish Border (@BorderIrish) February 8, 2018

Of this recent crop of writers, perhaps the best known is poet and editor Colette Bryce. Having grown up amid the often male-dominated, oppressive environment of Troubles-era Derry, Bryce relocated to Scotland in 2002 before transferring to the south of England to become editor of Poetry London. In 2003 she won the National Poetry Competition for The Full Indian Rope Trick, a searing meditation on the possibility of escape and self-realisation. The following year, her collection of the same name (Picador, 2005) was shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize.

Bryce’s work has been variously described as “satisfying, convincing [and] light-as-a-feather” and “filled … with the impulse to get out and away”, but with the publication of The Whole and Rain-Domed Universe (Picador, 2014) she made an unflinching return to her Derry roots. In her poem North and South, the border is a “barely controllable thing / to be wrestled”. In Helicopters, it features as “the head wound of an animal” attended by “a business of flies”. To Bryce, the border is a living thing; a man-made creature with a pulse and form and riven through with the worst impulses humanity has to offer.

“The fallout from Brexit, with its attendant strains of racism and populism, is going to affect all of our literature,” she says. “I wish that wasn’t the case.

“The ease of travel and reduced visibility has been so important for peace in recent years. The timing is particularly regrettable, given the approaching centenary of partition – an old wound for many in the north. And we had only just marked, with a kind of quiet relief, 20 years since the Good Friday agreement. It’s hard to believe the complete lack of consideration given to any of this by the Tories when they called their ill-fated referendum.”

Hands Across the Divide by sculptor Maurice Harron, in Derry, Northern Ireland.
Hands Across the Divide by sculptor Maurice Harron, in Derry, Northern Ireland. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Novelist and Keady native Michael Hughes echoes many of these sentiments. Born during a particularly chaotic period in the Troubles to a respectable south Armagh family, Hughes came late to writing. His first novel, The Countenance Divine, was published in 2016 to rapturous praise, and earned him lofty comparisons with AS Byatt, Hilary Mantel and David Mitchell. It wasn’t until 2018, when the full extent of the Brexit crisis was finally realised, that Hughes turned his attention to the border of his youth.

Set after a fictionalised version of the IRA ceasefire in the mid-1990s, Country recalibrates The Iliad for a jaded, war-weary generation – casting the Border Sniper as Achilles, a brutal paramilitary leader named Pig as Agamemnon, and an SAS captain named Henry as Hector. What follows is brutal, detailed and often funny, though what jumps out right away is Hughes’s ear for the harsh, cutting dialect of the south Armagh border region. “This is a good one,” the Border Sniper often begins his anecdotes. “Wait now till you hear.”

Hughes says of his decision to write about the border: “Now that it has come to mean less and has moved more into the realm of folk memory, its inhabitants are naturally starting to pay attention to themselves. Scrutiny tells you who you are.

“Growing up on the border used to promote an unofficial sense of lawlessness, and I think that – far from us wanting to eclipse Belfast or Dublin – we were kind of delighted to be out of the spotlight. Now we’re getting used to the focus being on us.”

The Cuilcagh mountain boardwalk which threads along the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland on 22 February, 2019.
The Cuilcagh mountain boardwalk, which threads along the border. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Of course, not all writers from the border are as keen to have the border defined by conflict. In 2017, Derry poet Susannah Dickey published her debut pamphlet I Had Some Very Slight Concerns – a blisteringly funny, often lateral rumination on ontology and the frailty of the human condition. In 2018, her follow-up, Genuine Human Values, was published to further praise and, later this year, her debut novel Tennis Lessons is set to be released by Doubleday.

“Here’s the thing about borders,” she says. “I’m a border, you’re a border … Growing up in Derry meant growing accustomed to external perceptions of identity which were often reductive and binary, and in my own writing I attempt to write the experience I had, which was one of much greater fluidity than what might be expected.”

Similarly, though the work of Donegal writer Annemarie Ní Churreáin is steeped in the windswept landscape and harsh character of Ireland’s north-west, her borders are more to do with the divided self. As she puts it: “I write to explore emotional experiences through the physicality of rural landscapes.”

And indeed, it would be hard to argue with this assessment of her work. In 2017, she published her debut poetry collection Bloodroot – a book so explicitly about the inseparability of body and landscape that both are in constant communication with one another. “The first time a tree / called me by name,” Ní Churreáin writes in End of Girlhood. “I was 13 and only spoke a weave of ordinary tongues.”

Ireland’s landscape and the historic violence committed against its women are open wounds running through society, Ní Churreáin seems to argue, and in this way she shares some of the same ideas as Bryce. About how the border enacts its divisions as a living, tangible being; about how it consumes its subjects at the same time that it attaches itself to them.

Darran Anderson understands only too well the importance that a sense of place like this has. As a writer and academic from Derry, Anderson’s focus has tended toward psychogeography in general and architecture in particular. In 2016 he published Imaginary Cities, an excellent study into the history of planned urban centres that never came into being.

“It’s just a fiction with the weight of a state behind it to try and make it seem real,” Anderson has said of the border in Ireland. “I live in England now, and when people ask me about it and talk in political terms, I always emphasise how psychological its presence was and remains.

“The constant oppressive low-level anxiety of the border … The great conjuring trick of the Good Friday agreement is that they made it disappear so that people on all sides could believe they’d somehow won a conflict in which everyone had really lost.”

It’s hard for this generation – who mostly came of age after the Troubles – to conceive of anything other than peace, and perhaps some of Anderson’s pessimism comes from the fact that the current Brexit debate has thrown the border’s status into uncertainty once again. Peace in the north of Ireland has been hard won and is often still contentious.

In January 2019, a car bomb exploded outside the courthouse in Derry and was, according to police, “minutes” away from killing a group of teenagers who were passing. In March, the same dissident republican paramilitary who perpetrated the attack – a group calling themselves the New IRA – sent letter bombs to locations in Glasgow, London and Dublin.

The threat of violence in the north of Ireland is real, ever-present and weighted with the baggage of colonial misadventure. We can only hope that we don’t witness another generation marred by the violence of the past, and instead get to hear from more of the kind of engaged, politically astute voices who have been documenting Ireland’s border and redefining it. As Derry poet Emily Cooper puts it: “It’s almost like the spotlight has been shone on us after many years of darkness and we were all here tapping away waiting to explain what it’s been like.”


James Patterson

The GuardianTramp

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