Arts

Co Tyrone crime-fiction author on writing, Brexit and the blight of the border

The Irish border has proved a rich seam for crime-fiction novelist Anthony J Quinn but the changes Brexit threatens prompted him to transfer the setting of his latest novel to another historical frontier, the Tyrone author writes

Brexit felt like a stumbling block to a good story
Anthony J Quinn

I WRITE about fictional detectives and spies, but my true hero is the Irish border between Tyrone and Monaghan, and its soft, mazy landscape of bogland and forest.

I grew up and still live in the parish of Killeeshil, close to Aughnacloy, which was notorious during the Troubles for its covered army checkpoint. In those days, the village felt like a crossing point into forbidden territory, a realm of solitude and danger peopled by dangerous smugglers, soldiers and paramilitaries on the run.

My childhood journeys across the border still feed my imagination and helped create the noir fictional landscape of my Inspector Celcius Daly novels.

However, for the first time in 10 years, I’ve had to turn away from this hinterland and retire my detective character from his border adventures. In part, the reason is Brexit. I suspected that a noir border novel written in 2018 might seem utopian by 2019 or 2020, and I was reluctant to plunge headfirst into the political maelstrom that was brewing.

Brexit, with all its political uncertainty and journalistic clichés, felt like a stumbling block to a good story. So I thought it was best to refocus and find a new location for my stories. 

I can’t write about a place unless I’ve inhabited its landscape. Fortunately, for my fictional obsession with borders, the only other rural landscape I’ve lived in for more than four seasons was alongside another historic boundary, which is why, in my latest novel, The Listeners (published December 13), I’ve moved the plot to the true border, the most ancient division between the tribes of these islands, the Scottish border.

It’s been a painful change of longitude. I’ve come to rely on the spirit of wildness and refuge the Irish border gives my characters, and the mystical moods and layers of history it adds to my plots.

Over the last 10 years, I’ve been able to happily range back and forth across the border, seeking inspiration and the ghosts of stories without once ever being stopped or interrogated. As a family, we’ve trekked the border countless times: canoeing along the Blackwater, tramping through Favour Royal forest near Aughnacloy, and exploring the hills and bogland paths overlooking the Clogher Valley.

I’ve managed to replace the darkened terrain of my childhood with new stories and adventures. My warmest memories as a father have been watching my children take whatever they can from our forays across the Tyrone and Monaghan border: the surprise of cycling along a bog road and seeing a hare bound across our path, too busy to pay us any attention; or watching the miraculous flight of a dragonfly on the Blackwater at twilight.

They have never noticed the border, which runs so invisibly close to their lives, and they’ve never been able to locate my stories about the Troubles in the landscape they know as home.

My grandfather was 14, the same age as my eldest daughter is now, when the border was first created. He farmed the field I now live on, and in his way was part of a quiet war waged against partition, fought by daughters and wives, husbands and sons across this landscape.

People of his generation moved livestock, tea, butter, sugar, alcohol and tobacco, anything that had a sufficient price differential or scarcity to make smuggling worth the risk. The intrusive bureaucracy of the border made them feel rebellious, and encouraged them to behave as they felt, like outlaws.

Life was harsh and the temptation to hustle a financial gain from the border was too strong. They had to make a living out of the landscape and learned to cultivate the twisted nature of the border into their daily lives and in their character. The border turned into something my grandfather and his farming neighbours, both Protestant and Catholic, learned to live with and survive.

We should be glad those days are past. Instead, political forces over which we have no democratic control seem intent on turning the border into a political and economical problem our children may never get rid of or recover from.

My consolation is that in spite of Brexit, this murky heart of Ulster will stay the same, and sometime soon, I’ll return to writing about it again. The hills and rivers straddling the border will still be themselves, still beautiful, if ravaged a little by the division and violence spawned over the decades by partition.

The border runs through some of the wildest countryside in the north, and nature has miraculous powers of healing. The thickets of thorn and gorse are unstoppably vigorous and the bog treacherously soft.

It’s a landscape that may prove to be a dangerous foundation for the latest plans of politicians.

:: Anthony J Quinn's new crime novel The Listeners – set in 'the brooding landscape of the Scottish borders' – is published by Head of Zeus and is available now.

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