Life on the borderlands: Exploring our ‘magical imaginations’

Grianan of Aileach. Life on the Borderlands exhibition event. Holywell Trust. Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Life on the borderlands: Exploring our ‘magical imaginations’
by Allan LEONARD
15 March 2022

As part of its Borderlands exhibition, the Holywell Trust held a full-day event, attended by about a dozen participants, that combined site visits, exhibition display, and on-site discussions. The exhibition was described by Gerard Deane, the trust’s director, as “capturing the reflections on what living along the border means to 22 people from the local community”, which he described as including RUC men, former IRA combatants, customs workers, peacebuilders, community workers, and more.

Grianan of Aileach

The first port of call was Grianan of Aileach (or Greenan Fort), an ancient stone ringfort on Greenan Mountain in County Donegal. We were invited to imagine the physical dimensions of borders, taking in mind that on a clear day it is reputed that you can view five counties from this hillfort.

Memorial to Patsy GILLESPIE

Our second site visit highlighted the political dimension of borders. Our bus stopped at a parking lot where once stood a British military barracks. Here, in 1990, Patsy Gillespie was chained and forced to drive his bomb-laden van into the premise, killing him and five others. A discrete memorial stone is embedded in the roadside wall.

Back at the premises of Holywell Trust, Deane presented a video of selected interview extracts curated by him and colleagues Ronan McConnell and Craig Barr. The Borderlands participants shared their thoughts about the existence of the Northern Ireland-Ireland border itself, its impact upon their lives, and future prospects for the border.

For example, Roger McCallum described what he saw as good relationships between the RUC, in which he served, and Garda Siochana, with formal meetings between the two police services along the border and protocols in place. Meanwhile, Dermot O’Hara, as an Irish nationalist, remarked how his father and he would have to occasionally go and intervene to resolve issues occurring from stop and search incidents. And Robin Young, who served in a police unit at Strand Road, explained his plastic backed map with local land owners’ names, in case “you ever crossed a barbed wire fence and the fence broke”, so you knew who to contact to organise a repair. However, as British military units they worked alongside were ignorant of placenames, Young and his colleagues would give them numbers, referring to them as ‘nicknumbers’: “We’re going to Nick 22.”

The interviewees spoke about how the UK’s withdrawal from the EU has affected them. Margaret McLaughlin saw Brexit as imposing someone else’s identity and taking away from hers, while highlighting the dimension of dual citizenship in Northern Ireland, whereby anyone born here can be Irish, British, or both: “And I think that’s the way that it should be.” Brian Dougherty, who sees himself as a unionist, said that his family were mixed in regards to how they voted in the EU withdrawal referendum. He sees layers and not binary identities, and he is frustrated when people try to box individuals into certain categories. Maureen Hetherington spoke of her identity as who she is as a person, the culture that she belongs to and the culture that she creates, “because culture evolves, culture changes”.

Speaking of potential future changes to the border, Kenny McFarland suggested that the Irish government will have to do “a lot more work” on preparing society for a united Ireland, because “I don’t think people down south actually understand what’s happening up here.” McCallum said that it would be great to break down borders as much as we can, “in people’s minds and people’s thinking”, if they can’t come down geographically.

The dimension of Brexit and the border was put in sharp relief in Clare Dwyer Hogg’s poem, performed by Stephen Rea and screened for the audience. ‘Hard Border’ speaks of magic and imagination of borders and our identities:

“Nothing to see Means reality.

It sounds magical, doesn’t it?

This is what magic in the day to day looks like:

The spirit of peace in the normality.

Nothing outward as such, no extra levity: Just —

a gentleness in the mundanity.

Daily travel.

Across the political lines.

Work, school, grocery shops.

Back again.

Magic is the absence, Sometimes.

And there was magic too in 1998.

A very good Friday.

And all the years in between To make the border disappear:

There but not there,

A line of imagination

that needed imagination to make it Exist while unseen.”

Craig BARR

Craig Barr, newly appointed chief executive officer of The Junction, introduced his colleague, Seamus Farrell, who provided a broad overview of Irish history from the 1609 Articles of Plantation. Through Farrell’s lens, from at least the time of the Viking arrival in Ireland, mergings between newcomers and natives were always accompanied by turbulence and violence, “but eventually worked out”. An explanation why this wasn’t such the case with the plantation may have been Oliver Cromwell’s response to a native uprising in 1641, when Protestants were massacred by drowning in the River Bann.  Generational memories and a religious dimension was “a lethal weapon in the hands of conflict entrepreneurs”.


Farrell continued by giving examples of efforts to transcend the religious divide, from the 1798 rising through the development of home rule legislation. For unionists, the 1920 Government of Ireland Act broke the Solemn League and Covenant. A Presbyterian minister from Malin Head in Donegal gave expression to finding himself on the ‘wrong’ side of the border by tearing up his copy of the Covenant and framing the pices separately. Two months before the border became a reality, Edward Carson, in his 5 February 1921 speech on his resignation as leader of Ulster unionism, spoke of the “grave responsibilities attached to being the majority, to be a parliament for the whole community”. Likewise, King George V’s speech to the parliamentarians at Belfast City Hall on 22 June 1921 was seen as a call for reconciliation. However, between June 1920 and July 1922, the six-county area was the most violent area on the island, with 40% of all fatalities in Belfast.

Farrell explained how in the case of boundary commissions set up to deal with outcomes of the First World War — especially between Germany and Poland (Silesia) and between Germany and Denmark (Schleswig-Holstein) — local people were consulted; in Ireland there was no such plebiscite. Farrell put it that the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922 was “so vague” that the British government “wriggled out of the consultation process”. Some 80,000 unionists found themselves on the wrong side of the border, in three “rump counties”, while Catholics found themselves on the wrong side within the new jurisdiction. “All this is how we see who we are and what we are dealing with,” Farrell concluded.


Paul Gosling, author of the book, A New Ireland: A New Union, A New Society, argued that the discussion on Brexit has always been about identity, especially English nationalism, which is why it has caused problems for Scots, Welsh, and everyone on both sides of the border in Ireland. He gave the example of the Nationalities and Border Bill, which says that people who aren’t UK nationals need an Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) to enter the UK. This would apply to EU26 and other (non-Irish) nationals entering Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland. Furthermore, another provision in the bill would allow the British government to expel from the UK anyone who doesn’t serve ‘the national interest’ and has another citizenship (i.e. would not become stateless).

As for constitutional and border futures, Gosling said that we don’t know how current uncertainties about the global economy (“damaged by Covid, Brexit, and war in Ukraine”) will affect constitutional discussions, which itself will be based on identities (“but not much”), the state of Northern Ireland’s health services, aftermaths of political legacies, and the practicalities of any all-island governance (for example, what continuation of British government subsidies to Northern Ireland). “It is all unclear,” Gosling summarised.

A lively discussion followed, which included exploring the lack of an ‘Irexit’ EU withdrawal campaign in Ireland (“Ireland remembers its economic history better than in the UK.”), responding to census questions about your identity (“Be truthful about whether you’re practising the religion that you were brought up in.”), and developing forums for rational based conversations (“Convince me as a unionist of the benefits of a united Ireland.”).

The special one-day programme covered much ground, physically across borders and psychologically through the consideration of multifaceted identities. The event served not only as a snapshot of the views of Borderlands participants, but a useful framework for further explorations of our ‘magical imaginations’.

The Borderlands project runs from 26 July 2021 to 31 March 2022.

The 22 featured participants were: Brian Dougherty, Catherine Cooke, Darren Guy, David Young, Dermot O’Hara, Donncha mac Neilis, Gerry Temple, Gregory Campbell, Johnny Dooher, Kathryn Lynch, Kevin Campbell, Margaret Mc Laughlin, Maureen Hetherington, Mickey Kinsella, Neil Doherty, PJ Hallinan, Robin Young, Roger McCallum, Seamus Farrell, Teresa Stewart, Tony McFarland, and William Hay.

All images © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster


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