Earlier this week I engaged in a small rebellion against Boris Johnson by helping a friend move. They were moving to Donegal, just across the Irish border, before starting a job in Derry on the other side of that border. In a testament to the current ephemerality of the Irish border, my friend’s international commute from Donegal to the Derry suburbs is actually faster than a commute from some parts of the city to those same suburbs. The proposed hard border threatens to undo her travel plans and her hopes of a longer lie-in before work.
The drive to Belfast to Donegal is one my favourite journeys. I spent a significant part of my childhood making that trip, so the drive is nostalgic. I love going past lough neagh and being surprised again at just how damn big it is. I love driving through the Glenshane pass and watching the sheep graze on the mountains. And I love passing over the border into Donegal, and hoping to catch a glimpse of the sea.
As I mentioned in my DRB essay, it’s hard to tell when you are crossing the border. The sign declaring you are exiting the UK and entering the Republic is non-dramatic and easy to miss. One way to notice the boundary it is to look out for a terrible roadside shop; a converted shipping container that sits right next to the border. I am absolutely, 100% certain that this shops promise of cheap northern fuel is in no way a flaunting of higher Irish prices and is definitely not illegal. No sir, no way, just a coincidence.
The morning we spent in Donegal reminded me of many of the things that I love about life near the Derry/Inishowen border. The scenery is beautiful for one thing. We went for a lovely walk on one of the Inishowen peninsula’s many beautiful beaches, and said hello to the dog-walkers we met. I love driving around and noticing the profusion of pubs and the diners attached to petrol stations. I love the smell of salt water and peat bogs mixed together, and the intense greenness of the grass and the trees.
Stereotypical as it might sound, the people of the border are friendly and welcoming. After we’d spent just a morning moving things into my buddy’s new house her neighbors were already treating us like we’d both lived there for years, saying hi and waving when they drove past us. A kindly older gentleman, after inquiring what type of heating my friend needed, recommended the also highly legal services of another gentleman who sells fuel from the north at a 100 euro discount. We joked that this would be unavailable after Brexit. After he gave us a small laugh, I stopped for a moment and felt sad. We finished unpacking and left.
After crossing and re-crossing the border, we stopped for a while in Derry. Derry is a modern city that’s grown out of, and then back into, an early modern one. The old walled city sits in a surprisingly camouflaged way among the shops and homes of the contemporary town. This has numerous benefits, not least being that visitors can walk the whole way around the walls. It is a relaxing and enjoyable stroll.
After having lunch, me and my friend went for one such undirected walk around the walls. I watched the city nestled between the hills and the river, I pointed out the whimsical nature of the skeleton on the Derry coat of arms, and we slipped past the teenage punks who had chosen some cannons to rest upon. We agreed that some old cannons next to a murder-hole are a pretty metal-as-fuck sitting area.
The walls of Derry are one of the most symbolically rich sites in the North. They are synonymous to many with the story of the 17th century apprentice boys, who abandoned their training to shut the gates and seal the city against an advancing Jacobite army. Fast forward to the twentieth century and, for the city’s oppressed catholic majority, the walls were a symbol of the protestant ascendancy who, flouting democracy, ruled over Derry. Today the walls are replete with tourist groups, guided around by people holding identifying flags, and with the locals of Derry who walk around a city and a state-let still unsure of itself. The walls were recently seen in the second season finale of Derry Girls, where Michele tries to convince her English cousin James that he too is a, ‘Derry girl’. From siege walls in a religious war to the televisual backdrop for a moment of hiberno-anglo unity; it is quite a journey for a symbol to make.
Walking up the east wall, we came to where it is crossed over by Newmarket street. The road and the walls sort of momentarily merge into one, the walls subsumed into a traffic crossing before coming out again on the other side. It’s a nice example of the modern living next to, and partially swallowing, the historical. Both the past and the present come out of this negotiation okay, I think.
Permit me another strained metaphor. In places like Derry, like Donegal, like Northern Ireland, boundaries are historical facts. We cannot wish them away, and no amount of bridge-building, or road-swallowing, will totally erase the divisions of life here. National borders, city walls, the slightly sinister implications of painted curbstones; each of these are a tribute to the violent past that has created our wee country. The future of community relations here may have more to do with easing the passage through boundaries than with the erasure of them.
Claire Mitchell described Northern Ireland as being at it’s best when we are engaged in, ‘The gentle, intricate and generous negotiation of difference’ . The walls meeting and then emerging from Newmarket, the fellas smuggling discounted oil into Donegal, the terrible store right next to the border; these are examples to the rest of Northern Ireland to follow. Each is a symbol of border people negotiating, respecting and then subverting difference. The farcical plans held by the current UK government threaten to undermine this whole way of life, and in doing so, to close off the path forward that they show the rest of us.