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Lives laid along the line: the lived realities of the borderlands

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The language of the border has been abstracted and its scars covered over, obscuring the lives and narratives that surround it

It’s the 1970s and the Troubles are in full fury, but an 18-year-old woman in an unnamed, but obviously Northern Irish, city couldn’t give less of a shit. She is being stalked by a paramilitary who is not a milkman but is called ‘Milkman’. ‘These were knife-edge times, primal times, with everybody suspicious of everybody’, says the narrator, the aforementioned couldn’t-give-a-shit-er, in Anna Burns’ 2018 Booker Prize-winning Milkman. The novel is written in near stream of consciousness and set in an urban war zone. Vague aliases exist, facilitated by the powers that be, like ‘renouncers of the state’, and the ‘opposite religion’. Whether they are Republican or Unionist, Catholic or Protestant, is neither here nor there. Even more dichotomous and banal than that, there is ‘the right butter. The wrong butter. The tea of allegiance. The tea of betrayal. There were “our shops” and “their shops”’. The lines the anonymised governments of the era drew through soil, and the defensive frontiers that those within built around themselves, made a coin. Each ‘side’ had the same social, material and economic struggles, unbeknownst to the other. 

‘Life goes on in times of violence; it is still possible to love, and it is possible to be stalked’

The novel is demonstrative of an island, that is Ireland, that is cut at its tip with a wound. The sore has not quite healed; history invariably looms, approach with caution! The sore’s legacy is endured by brave souls who occupy spaces within and beyond its partition. In Burns’ world, they are the nameless cronies surrounding our narrator: the gossip-ridden ‘first brother-in-law’; the boyfriend who is not really a boyfriend called ‘maybe-boyfriend’; and, of course, her ma, who is called ‘ma’. Relationships, and places within and along these borderlands, exist only in relation to one another. This wound is a geographical scar that is also a frontier; it is a necessary border that puts ‘them’ and ‘us’ in different countries. The refusal to name, and deferment of identity, creates a micro-example of a ‘them-over-there-ism’. ‘I’d been brought up not to think about the Others in terms of where they came from or who they were,’ the protagonist of John Lanchester’s The Wall shares, ‘to ignore all that – they were just Others.’ 

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The Irish Border. Maria McLintock – Border Roads, Tony O’Shea

The borderland becomes otherwise a space of resistance, manifested in the early ’90s anti-border festivals held by the people of the area around the Lackey Bridge in Monaghan. Photograph by Tony O’Shea, from Border Roads

Borders can contain and produce more than just its one cartographic ‘line’ – it ruptures and weaves through land like barbed-wire-wrapped veins. Set in Milkman’s era of the ’70s, but written in 1983, the protagonist of Bernard MacLaverty’s Cal lives with his father in a mixed area of North Belfast, until being forced to relocate from one of the 184 homes that were burned out. Cal is blackmailed into joining the IRA, but it is really a love story.

Life goes on in times of violence; it is still possible to love, and it is possible to be stalked. The bellicosity surrounding the communities in both ’70s-set novels – reinforced by frontier-inducing political turmoil – is omnipotent yet unfathomable, with those living within it suffering multiple layers of violence: the obviously present physical and the sectarian, dominating the psychological and the sexual (such as our narrators), all with an abject slipperiness. Violent austerity is, of course for the time, everywhere. 

Both Cal and Milkman are set several years after a civil rights march in 1968, after years of political fireworks between Catholics and Protestants. The former were intimidated and forced to leave their homes in mixed areas (they initially marched for peace and prosperity, later an Irish republic). Thus ensued a sectarian context in which one side of the Crumlin Road in Belfast was completely Catholic, the other Protestant. Cal aids in the murder of a Protestant Ulster reserve police officer, an Orangeman, and falls for his widowed wife. He is reticent to join the IRA, instead pining for his darling Marcella, but as Burns taught us in Milkman, these were ‘knife-edge’ times. Cal pleas that ‘to suffer for something which didn’t exist, that was like Ireland. People were dying every day, men and women were being crippled and turned into vegetables in the name of Ireland. An Ireland which never was and never would be. It was the people of Ulster who were heroic, caught between the jaws of two opposing ideals trying to grind each other out of existence’. 

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The Irish Border. Maria McLintock – Belfast map, peacewall archive

There are 45-foot-tall architectures dividing the kids’ ‘sides’ that have today been rebranded as ‘peace walls’, their jagged lines shown cutting across Belfast in this graphic representation of sectarian segregation from the digital Peacewall Archive

And grind they did: between 1968 and the peace deal of 1998, 3,600 people died in the Troubles. Cal’s late teenage years would have overlapped with 30 January 1972, when thousands of mostly Catholic marchers took to the streets of the Bogside district of Derry. The British military opened fire; it’s called Bloody Sunday for a reason. I’ll leave you to read Michael Hughes’ Country for a low-down on that one. The then prime minister Brian Faulkner had introduced a policy called the Special Powers Act, resulting in internment without trial for anyone suspected of IRA involvement. I won’t divulge Cal’s fate, but it wouldn’t take an oracle to guess it.

The at times indistinguishable variants between these opposing sides in 1970s Ireland – that Burns’ Milkman so eloquently portrays, and MacLaverty’s Cal highlights – is again spotlighted in Joan Lingard’s The Twelfth Day of July (1970). Sadie Jackson is a Protestant; Kevin McCoy is a Catholic. Their fates collide in the tense streets of Belfast at the Troubles’ height, and end with an impossible friendship. Their rival gangs on each of their ‘sides’ show the fight rooted in symbols: one set of curbs painted green, white and gold; the other red, white and blue; pigments still present today. One worships ‘Ould William’ – William III who defended Protestantism in Britain – the other a ‘silly old Pope’, a ‘freak’ in Rome. History does not get more detailed than that. The usual town characters emerge: the policeman, or bringer of the peace, who pleads with the children to ‘stay on your side’ as there’s always ‘less trouble that way’. Mothers, who pine for the ‘burnt children’, which we learn in Cal’s day were not a rarity. It took years for the ‘story’ to reflect the female experience during the Troubles: hail Burns for showing the tragic nuance of a woman’s identity during multiple layers of violence in 2018; Lingard’s Sadie in The Twelfth Day of July could only have been a tomboy.

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The Irish Border. Maria McLintock – Life in the shadow of the wall

Life goes on in the shadow of the wall: in the so-called post-sectarian society that has followed the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, on average 30 people a year have been made homeless due to having to leave a Protestant neighbourhood, and 90 per cent of children still receive a largely segregated education. Photograph courtesy of A Abbas / Magnum Photos

Our current Northern Ireland has been without a government for the past two years – since Sinn Féin, which wants a united Ireland, withdrew from an already unstable coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party. The Britain that is Great forgot it was United with a Kingdom when it came to voting on their fates; civil servants left responsible for the day-to-day running of the country. Funding was cut for support groups of victims of violence – yes, they still exist, and their children are victims too. A national hero in the form of a young journalist has been shot. Running throughout is a population of brave and conscious citizens who have been to hell and back and yearn for peace, so much so that the popularity of a united Ireland has risen more in the last two years than since the ’70s. Because of Brexit. This is the UK’s history too – of milkmen, policemen, the stalked, the oppressed, the survivors, victims, teenagers and children – and a border runs through these lands that is precarious and pulsating at its seams. But on 23 June 2016, we ignored its ground-tremouring rumbling. The Troubles are gone but something else is emerging. 

In 1990, Irish essayist Hubert Butler yearned that ‘the border might become meaningless and drop off painlessly like a strip of plaster from a wound that had healed, or else survive in some modified form as a definition which distinguishes but does not divide’. The frequent comparison of this border to the corporeal is not serendipitous or inflammatory. Butler – writing before a peace treaty, and now edging towards a tenebrosity unknown – must be turning in his grave. Victories are never permanent; a peace treaty not eternal. For legendary political activist and academic Angela Davis, society has garnered a ‘failure to develop a meaningful and collective historical consciousness’.

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The Irish Border. Maria McLintock – Blackstaff lounge and bar, Belfast Falls Road

Patrons gaze out from the chicken-wire cage around the Blackstaff lounge and bar on Belfast’s Falls Road, c1980 – whether devised for protection, control, or some blend of the two, the barriers that were built up to keep mutually inimical communities apart seem both severe and uncanny to the stranger, as well as banal to those dwelling around them. Photograph by Colin Jones

To see the forgetfulness of a voting nation towards an entire populace living under remnants of years of conflict is shameful. Discern the stories woven here: not of grand neoliberal politics, bound up in an inaccessible dialect of trade deals, customs unions, governments and brokers. No. They fable the existent, individualised and tangible experiences of living in an ecosystem of everyday conflict. They teach us about where Northern Ireland has come from, of the internalised paranoia the ecosystem instils, a precursor to years of inherited trauma. I am calling for belief in people over news cycles, pertinent to architecture because they represent the social histories of those words so central to our subject – borders, frontiers, defence, politics, cohabitation. 

What is the need for historical context when singular words encapsulate, swallow, spit out moulded reshaped anew a different thing entirely. Backstop. Brexit. Backstop. Brexit. Taking, back; control.

Lead image: The bristling site of the borderland becomes a point of sale, with fatty post-modern cynicism on show at a clothing shop in Muff. Image courtesy of Andrew Testa / Panos Pictures

This piece is featured in the AR June 2019 issue on the islands of Ireland – click here to purchase your copy today