Hard Border: Irish author takes a timely walk along the Ulster Canal for new book

Amid ongoing uncertainty over Brexit’s effect on the border, Derry author Darach MacDonald, who grew up in Clones, Co Monaghan, tells Gail Bell why he walked the route of the Ulster Canal for his book Hard Border, a journey in history, geography and, of course, politics

Journalist and author Darach MacDonald at his home in Derry Picture: Margaret McLaughlin
Journalist and author Darach MacDonald at his home in Derry Picture: Margaret McLaughlin

HARD or soft – whatever the elasticity of the Irish border post-Brexit, there is something more personal at stake than rigid economics, according to the author of a new book on the hotly debated subject.

Author and journalist Darach MacDonald, who grew up in the border town of Clones, Co Monaghan – a place "left teetering on the brink of ruin due to partition" – has written Hard Border: Walking Through A Century Of Irish Partition – to be launched in Belfast at the end of the month.

But despite the current furore over what will happen to the 'last frontier' when Britain leaves the EU, MacDonald's interest stretches back across his own half century to early years as a "borderer" and growing up with a sense of "difference", much of its due to his grandmother Brigid O'Grady's house being split down the middle by that invisible, "divisive" line.

"A proud Co Clare woman, my grandmother relished my dad's cheeky observation that she slept with her head in the Free State and her backside in the north," writes MacDonald, whose book traces the route of the abandoned Ulster Canal from Lough Erne to Lough Neagh and takes a long, hard look at how and why it all happened in the first place – and the impact it has had on displaced families and communities in the decades since.

The route is only 46 miles in total and he says "anyone could do it", but it is the memories and anecdotes that MacDonald digs up and weaves into the narrative, as well as thoroughly researched historical nuggets – such as the mysterious death of Oscar Wilde's two half-sisters who perished in a fire in 1871 in Monaghan – which make for an offbeat meander through time and place.

Add to the mix historical snippets, current affairs, and some investigative journalism to boot, and the result doesn't quite fit a pre-cut literary template, but, like its subject matter, zig-zags daringly through communities, hearts and homes.

"The thing about the border," says MacDonald, who graduated in English and History from UCD and now lives in Derry, "is that it should be seen as much more than a logistical problem with economic consequences.

"There are historical, sociological and geographical factors which all need to be considered, as well as the way the border disrupted lives and had a devastating impact on cultural identity.

"The border was an ad hoc arrangement from the very beginning and its anomalies and imperfections were supposed to be addressed by a boundaries commission, but that didn't happen due to the politics at the time."

But although never rectified, it was a line that did not always remain static, says the writer who remembers the farm of his uncle, the celebrated novelist Eugene McCabe, being “cut off”, leading to him building a small link road through the corner of a field that he named the Khyber Pass and which provided “a circuitous escape route into town”.

The 'spiked' border roads, meanwhile, circumscribed the author's childhood world in a ring of steel, "creating unnatural barriers between neighbours, friends and family", while a growing sense of fear and foreboding settled in the rafters and foundations of homes and businesses in and around Clones.

"I remember bombs and gunfire in the night," MacDonald recalls. "By the early 1970s, while I was a student, there was a real and palpable sense of fear, especially after a succession of bomb attacks, frequent incursions by armed British and loyalist undercover groups, and the ongoing battles over border roads that included full-scale rioting in rural locations around the town.

"When Senator Billy Fox was killed just outside Clones in April 1974, there was a sense of impending doom, that was partly realised by the bombing of Monaghan town within weeks, resulting in seven fatalities. The fear was reflected by the rapid collapse of retail businesses and the dilapidation of Clones itself."

Although living away while much of this was going on, as a frequent visitor 'back home', he could not grasp how people in Clones "as in all the other areas deeply and persistently affected by the conflict" could live with the dread and uncertainty that had become a part of their daily life.

"As a reporter I covered a lot of it, but my journalism was predicated by my lived experience and my home community," he adds.

An enthusiastic "walker with intent", MacDonald – a former editor of the Ulster Herald group – completed the journey on which his latest book is based in three stages, beginning in March, 2016, after David Cameron's announcement on a Brexit referendum, and finishing last year.

"I would like to see a world where all borders would disappear and I wish the whole notion of Brexit would just disappear, " he says, "but my fear now is a regression to a hard border, with duties and tariffs of the past.

"When I began, there was a certainty in the air that we would vote to remain in EU and when I finished everything was up in the air. A lot can happen in 46 miles."

:: Hard Border by Darach MacDonald, published by New Island Books, will be launched in Waterstones, Belfast, on Thursday April 26.