2021 Workshop

Foot, Notes (A Walk Along the Irish Border)

The 310-mile border between Ireland and Northern Ireland is crossed by 208 roads, which are numbered sequentially by the Irish Government — though they also have local names and numbers. Pictured are (clockwise from top left) roads 86, 110, 204, and 173, all photographed in 2019. [Tom Keeley]

Look at that hill. It’s not huge but has some height, 241 metres to be exact. It’s rough towards the top with bones of rock breaking through the surface. The vegetation is brown and green and scrappy, with the lower flanks farmed here and there and scattered with bungalows.1The Irish manifestation of the bungalow emerged from Jack Fitzsimons’s architectural pattern book Bungalow Bliss (1972); arguably, this typology has made a bigger impact on the Irish architectural landscape than any other force since the British.It has its own kind of beauty, its current stillness belying its recent history.

This quiet hill in South Armagh2South Armagh is a staunchly republican area in Northern Ireland. During the conflict, it was one of the most militarised areas along the border; the British politician Merlyn Rees (Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, 1974-76) referred to it as “bandit country.” is a thin place3A thin place in Irish mythology is a threshold or portal — a border — between this and other worlds. See Kerri ní Dochartaigh, Thin Places (Canongate, 2020). of sorts. It was the site of a now dismantled British Army watchtower4These fortifications belong to a lineage stretching from Iron Age hill forts to the Great Wall of China and the Berlin Wall. Such watchtowers were scattered all along the Irish border, but were installed with particular density in South Armagh. They were demolished between 2000 and 2007 as part of the demilitarisation following the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. See photographer Donovan Wylie’s book British Watchtowers (Steidl, 2007), and Jonathan Olley’s Castles of Ulster (Factotum, 2007). on Faughill Mountain — codenamed Romeo Two One — built from a bricolage of corrugated metal, chain-link fence, camera technologies, and scaffold as part of the longest continuous deployment in British military history: the 30-year conflict euphemistically known as “The Troubles.”5“The Troubles” as a colloquial term for the 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland, extending from 1969 to the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement in 1998. It derives from a refrain often repeated to the bereaved at Irish funerals: “Sorry for your troubles.” The watchtower occupied a strategic position surveilling the so-called Irish border6The name itself is contested. Commonly referred to in the United Kingdom (and often the European Union) as the “Irish border,” in Ireland it is often simply “the border,” and in some communities “the British border in Ireland.” After all, the Irish didn’t put it there. Right? overlooking the main road and rail links between Dublin and Belfast, at a time when this part of the world was one of the most militarised areas of western Europe.

This border powerfully influences the political landscape on both sides. In the physical landscape, however, it is almost imperceptible.

The Irish border runs 310 miles/500 kilometers from Lough Foyle to the Irish Sea, and has divided the six counties of Northern Ireland from what is now the Republic since 1921. While all borders are artificial — political entities expressed as geographical lines — the artifice of this border is particularly acute. It winds along hedgerows, back roads, rivers, and streams. Given that settlements often grow up around bridging points, Partition divided a number of towns, villages, farms — even buildings — right down the middle. The border powerfully influenced the political landscape on both sides for much of the last century, and continues to do so. In the physical landscape, however, the border is now almost imperceptible, redacted.

Back in the 1990s, fences and checkpoints were still present. Since then, demilitarisation has all but removed the official infrastructures, and a generation has grown up in peace. The border is now quietly marked at points where signs change from miles (in Northern Ireland) to kilometers (in the Republic of Ireland), or with a subtle line in the tarmac where road builders from one jurisdiction stopped work and a team from the other side began.7The U.K.’s sole land frontier with the E.U., the 310-mile Irish border comprises more road crossings (208) than the entire 3720-mile eastern frontier of the E.U. where it meets Russia, Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine (137).

It was March 2019, when this achievement of invisibility was under threat — still is to some degree, thanks to Brexit8A particularly English phenomenon arising through lies and a sense of exceptionalism detached from its own history. A colossally stupid and dangerous waste of time, energy, and money IMHO.— that I decided the best way for me to engage with the border was to move along it in my own body, to walk the length of it. The border is still often looked-away-from or discussed in stereotypical terms.9Particularly when viewed and discussed from Great Britain. This walk was an attempt — as the centenary of Partition approached10I don’t think anyone expected it to last this long. — to look closely at an Teorainn11“The border” as Gaeilge [translated from the Irish]. in order to discuss what it has been and is right now. In the run-up to what we then thought would be “Brexit day,”12The first date set for the U.K.’s departure from the E.U., subsequently pushed back many times. Brexit was finally finalized on December 31, 2020. I set out from Doire13Again, the names of places are contested, stemming in no small part from the colonial mapping of Ireland by the British Ordnance Survey in 1824, which translated names of places and landscape features; the survey began — coincidentally — where the border now lies on the shores of Lough Foyle. Derry (or Londonderry) is the most famous example of these translations. The Irish word Doire, meaning “clearing in the oak grove,” was translated phonetically to “Derry,” and prefixed by “London” in reference to the Guilds of London who owned land in the county. To name the place Derry vs. Londonderry is to signify your community membership: nationalist/republican and predominantly Catholic, or unionist/loyalist and predominantly Protestant. The clunky compromise is to use Derry~Londonderry as a catch-all term. in the northwest, to walk 250-plus miles to Carlingford in the southeast.

In 2019, I decided that the best way to engage with the border was to move along it in my own body, to walk the length of it.

The walk was an act of deliberate slowness, a chance to move with intimacy along a forced demarcation that we normally move only across, at speed. I wanted to try to embody the border step by step, to practice the landscape, to sink into the topography. Walking was a method of traversing territories and ideas — a means by which to experience what Rebecca Solnit describes as “the rhythm of walking generating a kind of rhythm of thinking.”14Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust (Granta, 2002), 5. A walk is a peripatetic15Traveling from place to place, from the Greek περιπατητικός (peripatētikos) meaning to walk up and down.act that connects body and mind as a means by which to better know the world at large. My walk connected my internal landscape with something far greater, including parallel and multiple pasts; as I walked east and south, my body tracked a line on a map and moved, as Robert MacFarlane writes, “onwards in space, but also backwards in time.”16Robert MacFarlane, The Old Ways (Penguin, 2012), 15.

My walk began as a mode of engaging with place, but ended up in some ways as a mode of engaging with myself. As an English man17Am I an English man or an Englishman? I don’t feel like an Englishman. I just grew up in England and am a man. I feel far more drawn to Ireland, compelled even, but am not and will never be Irish like someone from Cork or Crumlin. Perhaps just Irish in a different way. of Irish descent18My father’s side is from Dublin and my mother’s from Birmingham. I had spent a lot of time in Ireland, but not so much at the border; it was over there, out of sight if not quite out of mind. As I walked, I realised that the walk was highlighting a psychological border in myself—a distinction between the U.K. and Ireland; between my presentation19My accent. versus my position and perspective20My family history, plus my own politics and knowledge of Irish history. in different contexts. These were constant negotiations and conflicts within, as well as without, with others’ responses to me. Do I keep quiet? What hat am I wearing? How can I be most honest? How am I seen? Does anyone care?

Borders may be nation-sized ruled lines, but the walk explored a web of roads, communities, relationships, and traumas. As I walked along, I was also walking through — not just places but clouds of cultural memory, experiencing histories like that of Romeo Two One as visible and not-so-visible ghosts. I was asking myself how you — one, I — might work with the border without making the border itself harder, more visible? Was my tracing of the route drawing attention to it? Reifying it somehow? Is it possible for me to subvert or dismantle it in some way, or at least to create space for that dismantling in the future?

Glen Beg, Co. Monaghan, March 2019. [Tom Keeley]

Níl aon stair ar leith don teorann. Níl ainm amháin don rud fresin agus tá diospóireacht faoi conas a labhráimíd faoi é ag gach cor. I Stair agus i gchleachtas, is ilfhóine de leargas thar aoiseanna é atá ag deifnídiú an theorainn. Cad é an cnuasainm cheart ar an chóimeáil an t’am atá chaite agus an t’am i láthair, ann agus in easnamh? Is é an teorann seo tearmann de scéal agus d’fhéiniúlacht, foirgnimh agus giotaí, áit a dheanann chinneadh ón árd léibhéal agus a macalla la hainthint ar bhonn aitiúil. Níl aon anseo agus ansiúd, níl ach an thírdreach céanna i gceist. Chur an mí-iompar toiliúil don Rialtais san Ríocht Aoinaithe agus an bhealach dáinséireach ’s neamhfhreagrach a roghnaigh siadan status quo faoi bhrú. Is é an phríomhphointe gur imigh an teorann as radharc; is ea é; débhrí agus miondifríocht a chinéal is ea é. Fágann sé sé doiléir é, ní faobhar atá i gcéist.21There is no singular history of the border. There isn’t even one name for it, with the language used to describe it contested at every turn. It is a polyphony of perspectives, among eras, that makes the border what it is, in history and in practice. What would the collective noun be for this assemblage of present-and-absent, now-and-then? This border is a hospitality of narratives and identities, buildings and fragments, where high-level decisions ricochet and echo on very local levels. There is no here and there; it’s all the same landscape. And it is the dangerous irresponsibility of (successive) British governments, who have handled that which is fragile with wilfull disregard, that has strained the sinews holding the status quo together. The point is that the border as such disappears: ambiguity and nuance are its form. It’s a blur, not an edge. (Translation by Ruairí Ó Donnabháin & Ríobhca Ní Rinn. Go raibh maith agat! [Thank you!] The term “hospitality of narratives” was coined by Irish philosopher Richard Kearney, and quoted by Irish President Michael D. Higgins in The Guardian, “Empire shaped Ireland’s past. A century after partition, it still shapes our present,” February 11, 2021).

There is also no way of understanding a border by looking at it from only one side. You need to engage with both, and the outcome of doing so is that you move through a borderland rather than along a border. You enter an “and” rather than an “or.” Perhaps there is a productiveness in this. If so much discussion of borders — particularly in the north of Ireland,22The term “North of Ireland” is used by nationalists and republicans throughout the island of Ireland when talking about Northern Ireland. This phrasing emphasizes a rejection of Partition, asserting the fact that the region is part of a single geographical entity, as well as the aspiration for it to be part of a single political entity. Many unionists take exception to the use of the term. See the glossary in Ulster University’s excellent Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN). See also: “Province,” “Six Counties,” “Ulster.” and even more so in the time of Brexit — occurs in binary terms, then what does it mean to embrace the constructive ambiguity23Generally attributed to Henry Kissinger, the phrase “constructive ambiguity” refers to the use of deliberately ambiguous language as a means to a political end. This approach was successfully used in negotiating the 1998 Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, particularly in relation to issues of national identity and aspirations for future constitutional change. of this border: the contradictions; memories; two-sidedness; (in)visibility; perspectives of others; the Englishness and Irishness inside my own body as I walked; and above all the lived experience and everyday practices of those who call this patch of land home?

While Romeo Two One itself was a tangible presence, the trajectory of its gaze — much like the border today — would have been felt as an invisible line of force, a haunting. As Louise Purbrick writes, “the battlefield logic that leads to the construction of the watchtowers assumes that the landscapes beneath them are spaces containing only combatants or potential combatants rather than, as they always are, lived environments.”24Louise Purbrick, “British Watchtowers” in Donovan Wylie, British Watchtowers (Steidl, 2007), 57. For me, this is what it comes back to: that while a line violently drawn on a map is all we can see from afar, it is that which is close that should command our clearest view.

Notes

  1. The Irish manifestation of the bungalow emerged from Jack Fitzsimons’s architectural pattern book Bungalow Bliss (1972); arguably, this typology has made a bigger impact on the Irish architectural landscape than any other force since the British.
  2. South Armagh is a staunchly republican area in Northern Ireland. During the conflict, it was one of the most militarised areas along the border; the British politician Merlyn Rees (Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, 1974-76) referred to it as “bandit country.”
  3. A thin place in Irish mythology is a threshold or portal — a border — between this and other worlds. See Kerri ní Dochartaigh, Thin Places (Canongate, 2020).
  4. These fortifications belong to a lineage stretching from Iron Age hill forts to the Great Wall of China and the Berlin Wall. Such watchtowers were scattered all along the Irish border, but were installed with particular density in South Armagh. They were demolished between 2000 and 2007 as part of the demilitarisation following the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. See photographer Donovan Wylie’s book British Watchtowers (Steidl, 2007), and Jonathan Olley’s Castles of Ulster (Factotum, 2007).
  5. “The Troubles” as a colloquial term for the 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland, extending from 1969 to the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement in 1998. It derives from a refrain often repeated to the bereaved at Irish funerals: “Sorry for your troubles.”
  6. The name itself is contested. Commonly referred to in the United Kingdom (and often the European Union) as the “Irish border,” in Ireland it is often simply “the border,” and in some communities “the British border in Ireland.” After all, the Irish didn’t put it there. Right?
  7. The U.K.’s sole land frontier with the E.U., the 310-mile Irish border comprises more road crossings (208) than the entire 3720-mile eastern frontier of the E.U. where it meets Russia, Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine (137).
  8. A particularly English phenomenon arising through lies and a sense of exceptionalism detached from its own history. A colossally stupid and dangerous waste of time, energy, and money IMHO.
  9. Particularly when viewed and discussed from Great Britain.
  10. I don’t think anyone expected it to last this long.
  11. “The border” as Gaeilge [translated from the Irish].
  12. The first date set for the U.K.’s departure from the E.U., subsequently pushed back many times. Brexit was finally finalized on December 31, 2020.
  13. Again, the names of places are contested, stemming in no small part from the colonial mapping of Ireland by the British Ordnance Survey in 1824, which translated names of places and landscape features; the survey began — coincidentally — where the border now lies on the shores of Lough Foyle. Derry (or Londonderry) is the most famous example of these translations. The Irish word Doire, meaning “clearing in the oak grove,” was translated phonetically to “Derry,” and prefixed by “London” in reference to the Guilds of London who owned land in the county. To name the place Derry vs. Londonderry is to signify your community membership: nationalist/republican and predominantly Catholic, or unionist/loyalist and predominantly Protestant. The clunky compromise is to use Derry~Londonderry as a catch-all term.
  14. Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust (Granta, 2002), 5.
  15. Traveling from place to place, from the Greek περιπατητικός (peripatētikos) meaning to walk up and down.
  16. Robert MacFarlane, The Old Ways (Penguin, 2012), 15.
  17. Am I an English man or an Englishman? I don’t feel like an Englishman. I just grew up in England and am a man. I feel far more drawn to Ireland, compelled even, but am not and will never be Irish like someone from Cork or Crumlin. Perhaps just Irish in a different way.
  18. My father’s side is from Dublin and my mother’s from Birmingham.
  19. My accent.
  20. My family history, plus my own politics and knowledge of Irish history.
  21. There is no singular history of the border. There isn’t even one name for it, with the language used to describe it contested at every turn. It is a polyphony of perspectives, among eras, that makes the border what it is, in history and in practice. What would the collective noun be for this assemblage of present-and-absent, now-and-then? This border is a hospitality of narratives and identities, buildings and fragments, where high-level decisions ricochet and echo on very local levels. There is no here and there; it’s all the same landscape. And it is the dangerous irresponsibility of (successive) British governments, who have handled that which is fragile with wilfull disregard, that has strained the sinews holding the status quo together. The point is that the border as such disappears: ambiguity and nuance are its form. It’s a blur, not an edge. (Translation by Ruairí Ó Donnabháin & Ríobhca Ní Rinn. Go raibh maith agat! [Thank you!] The term “hospitality of narratives” was coined by Irish philosopher Richard Kearney, and quoted by Irish President Michael D. Higgins in The Guardian, “Empire shaped Ireland’s past. A century after partition, it still shapes our present,” February 11, 2021).
  22. The term “North of Ireland” is used by nationalists and republicans throughout the island of Ireland when talking about Northern Ireland. This phrasing emphasizes a rejection of Partition, asserting the fact that the region is part of a single geographical entity, as well as the aspiration for it to be part of a single political entity. Many unionists take exception to the use of the term. See the glossary in Ulster University’s excellent Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN). See also: “Province,” “Six Counties,” “Ulster.”
  23. Generally attributed to Henry Kissinger, the phrase “constructive ambiguity” refers to the use of deliberately ambiguous language as a means to a political end. This approach was successfully used in negotiating the 1998 Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, particularly in relation to issues of national identity and aspirations for future constitutional change.
  24. Louise Purbrick, “British Watchtowers” in Donovan Wylie, British Watchtowers (Steidl, 2007), 57.

About the Author

Tom Keeley

Tom Keeley’s research practice deals with architecture, geography, and landscape histories. His design projects have been exhibited at the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Princeton University, and other institutions. Keeley studied landscape architecture at the University of Sheffield and architectural history at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London. He currently teaches at Cork Centre for Architectural Education, the Welsh School of Architecture at Cardiff University, and at the Bartlett, where he is also a Ph.D. candidate in Architectural Design, with a focus on the Irish borderlands.