An Irish Hard Border revisited

Book Review by Keith Harvey

Hard Border cover imageDarach MacDonald, Hard Border – Walking through a Century of Irish Partition, New Island, Dublin, 2018, 383 pages.

An Irish ‘Hard Border’ revisited

The writing and publication of Darach MacDonald’s latest book Hard Border – Walking through a century of Irish Partitioncould hardly have been better timed. The possibility of the re-emergence of a customs and immigration border between the Republic of Ireland and its north-eastern neighbour is one of the most difficult issues in the current negotiations between the UK and the EU (see earlier article in July, Tinteán  and further update below).

MacDonald could clearly not resist calling the book ‘Hard Border‘, a phrase that has emerged with the Brexit debate, but the title is appropriate enough. It was written as the prospects of Brexit became real and considers in part what the implications of Brexit might be for the people of Ireland and especially those in the border regions.

The book is part memoir, part travelogue and part history. There is a genre of history known as ‘micro history’; that is history of a single event or place. MacDonald’s work could be placed in that category since it is presents itself as a history of the region immediately surrounding the now disused Ulster Canal which ran from Upper Lough Earne (on the border of counties Fermanagh, Cavan and Monaghan] to Lough Neagh [on the border Armagh and Tyrone) . MacDonald walks the length of this canal recounting in the book the events that have occurred in places adjacent to the canal.

This results in some wonderfully diverse anecdotes being told; that is, events which are connected only by their geographical location and not otherwise. For example we learn – in geographical order only – of:

  • The tragic death of two half-sisters of Oscar Wilde in November 1871 when their dresses caught fire at a dance at Drumaconnor House in the parish of Kilmore in Co. Monaghan
  • A labor dispute in the Monaghan Lunatic Asylum in 1919 in which the workers took over the running of the Asylum , ran up the Red Flag and declared the creation of a ‘soviet’, that is, a workers collective on the Russian Bolshevik model
  • Another labor dispute at a corn mill in Caledon, (on the north side of the canal in Co. Tyrone) in which Catholic and Protestant workers were united in their demands. The strike was broken by the cooperation of the local Loyal Orange Lodges with the employer to force the Protestant workers back to work by denying them the privileges of lodge membership. Clearly the Lodges did not want workers uniting along class lines, preferring them to be divided on religious ones.

On the other hand, the reader might sometimes wonder about the wisdom of the book in seemingly chasing every rabbit down every local burrow, as the effect can be distracting to understanding the main themes of the book.

However, while in one sense this work is micro history it is also telling a much bigger story: that of the effects of the partition of Ireland – and of Ulster, the impacts of the border on local communities, but also of the big story of the relationship between the two political entities and the nationalist/republican and loyalist/unionist communities who live on both sides of the border.

The most dominant theme that runs through the book is that of the history of the bloodletting that has occurred on both sides of the border, before and at the time of partition and since up until the signing of the Good Friday Accords. It is a bloody history.

The history of the border itself is interesting. The initial partition lines in 1921 were supposed to be temporary and a Border Commission was established to determine the final boundaries. The Commission did not conclude its work until 1925 but the three Governments involved chose to suppress the Commission’s Report which was not made public until 1969.

A political and financial deal was done by the Free State government with London and no changes were ever made to the ‘temporary’ border, which stayed as it was drawn by the original partition. In many places, the border lines made little sense and did not reflect local economic and social geographies. Communities on both sides of the border suffered greatly by finding themselves on what they considered to be the wrong side of it. The border was largely drawn to ensure a unionist majority in any parliament in Belfast.

Darch-MacDonald-2-133x133Darach MacDonald grew up in one of the towns that now found itself on a frontier. Clones, in County Monaghan, is just a short distance from the border. Local roads [and previously, the railway line] crossed the border in many places.


Originally the new border was relatively soft but was soon hardened as a result of customs posts being established along both sides of the border to collect revenue for the two entities. Many roads were closed – dug up or even ‘spiked’ – and natural communities, services and markets separated and disrupted.

MacDonald tells many stories of the consequences of the establishment of the border, including smuggling as prices, taxes and the availability of goods varied from time to time and place to place, for example during the Second World War. While the Republic of Ireland was neutral, American forces were stationed just over the border in the North.

During the ‘Troubles’ which began in the late 1960s and continued until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, the border took on a particularly fortified existence as the British government sought to prevent arms and IRA combatants entering from the South. MacDonald’s extensive history of this period reminds us of how difficult these times were.

Because of the Peace Agreement and the fact that both the Irish Republic and the United Kingdom were now both members of the European Community, the hard border faded away over the past 20 years. Many fear its return.

Darach MacDonald’s book is a detailed account of the border regions. At times, description of his walking journey seems a little too detailed and he assumes that his reader knows a lot about Irish history over the past century. MacDonald began researching this book a long time ago having written his MA Thesis on the Irish Border Commission more than 40 years ago.

However, his current walk and book was begun as former UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced the EU referendum. The work was finished last year and published in 2018 and thus it is able to reflect on the worrying possibility that a new hard border will emerge from the Brexit process.

MacDonald knows and tells his story well. The book attempts to do a lot in its 380 pages. It is extensively referenced but lacks an index. For a book that concerns itself with a specific geography it is surprising that it has only one smallish map and no illustrations.

For all its diversions into otherwise unconnected rabbit holes it is well worth reading. The incidental stories are interesting and the main theme is compelling. The Good Friday Agreement ended a terrible period in Irish history and brought a new peace and hope to those living in border communities.

Brexit update

Since the previous story was published in July, there have been further developments in the Brexit process. On July 12ththe British Government published a White Paper on its new plan for Brexit, which is due to come into effect in March 2019. The present position is well summarised in a piece in The Conversation written by Belfast University’s Katy Haward (who is mentioned in MacDonald’s book) and  David Phinnemore. The article can be read here: The Conversation

Key to the UK government’s new Brexit plan is a proposal for a single market for goods between the UK and the EU. This would avoid the need for a special arrangement for Northern Ireland, at least with regard to the movement of goods. It would also avoid the need for the EU’s “backstop” plan which would see Northern Ireland alone remain in an effective customs union with the EU. This position is opposed by the Democratic Unionist Party as it would imply the existence of a form of border between the North and the rest of the UK. A resolution opposing such an outcome was passed by the House of Commons in July.

Of course, while this was UK PM Teresa May’s grand plan, it ran into immediate difficulties with two key Ministers, including the one responsible for Brexit and the Foreign Minister, resigning in protest. Bexiteers oppose remaining bound by all of the EU’s trade and common market rules. It is also not clear whether the EU will buy this plan either.

The UK White paper can be read here, with its numerous references to Ireland:

The current status of the ‘Withdrawal Agreement’ between the UK and the EU is here:

The attention to Irish issues in this document is also notable, including its intention to support the continuing implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and to continue to support other ‘whole of Ireland’ projects, including, for example, the maintenance of a single electricity market for the island.

The views of Irish people living in the border regions have been studied and published here: Brexit at the Border

Keith Harvey
Keith Harvey is a regular contributor to Tinteán.