With Brexit in the offing and a return to a ‘hard border’, GARRY AHERN looks back at the formation of the border almost 100 years ago and the efforts of those on both sides of the North-South divide to circumvent it
While sometimes portrayed as a division unique to Ireland, north-south borders have occurred in a number of countries, generally arising from unhappy events in the past. “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there,” L. P. Hartley wrote in his novel, ‘The Go-Between’.
As a young recruit to the Irish Customs and Excise service, when posted to the Derry/Donegal Border in the earlier 1960s, it seemed I had come to such a place, one where things were indeed done differently. For people around here, travelling to work, to church, to a dance or a football match, could entail unwelcome Customs restrictions and passing under flags alien to one’s tradition.
At school, we had heard of the Black Pig’s Dyke, a reputed pre-Christian era north-south frontier. Here, however, allegiances were based on ramparts erected much later, in the seventeenth century.
The nearby city of Derry, (or ‘Londonderry’, depending on one’s tradition), had been besieged by King James’s army in 1689. The successful resistance by Protestant defenders, supporters of King William, remained a source of division, exemplified in the city’s disputed name.
In contrast, when I was growing up near Limerick, where those same armies had soon after fought not one, but two sieges, such events were mentioned, if at all, only in school history classes.
In recent ‘Brexit’-fraught times, references to the ‘Borders of the Past’ have been flung about, like snuff at a wake, along with that recently-coined oxymoron, ‘a frictionless customs border’.