Walking the NI Border before the Good Friday Agreement

Border Crossings, a brief essay on two representations of the Northern Irish Border by Frances Devlin-Glass


Insistent talk of hard and soft borders in the North led me back to two books about the Border: Spike Milligan’s lampoon, Puckoon(Penguin, 1963), and the much more disturbing and sombre documentary by top novelist Colm Tóibín, Bad Blood: A Walk along the Irish Border(Vintage, 1987).

Spike Milligan’s ludic novel doffs its clown’s hat to Flann O’Brien as well as the Goons. The main character, also called Milligan (though he’s Dan rather than Terence Alan), rails against how his maker has made his legs work independently of his brain,  to escape his wife’s unwanted attentions, and before then,  the army that needs him to be willing cannon fodder. The novel is initially disarmingly whimsical, and Goonish, but it acquires a modicum of gravitas as it is set in the early ’twenties after the Civil War, and concerns the idiosyncrasies of how the Northern Irish the border is set up, and in particular its division of the town of Puckoon. It’s full of one- (and five-) liners that cannot fail but raise a laugh:

 Like all the men in Puckoon, [the grocer] was married but single after six at night. When the war started he had, in a fit of drunken patriotism, joined the Connaught Rangers, gone to France, caught the crabs and won the VC. Arriving home, he was greeted like a hero, given a presentation casket of blue unction and then thrown into jail for having obscene French postcards in his haversack….Disguised as a tout, he later sold them to visiting Americans. ‘Genuine Dublin night life’, he told the startled tourists. As a result two American warships were crewless for a month while the sailors searched Dublin for the like.

Although such vignettes are sexist by modern standards, they cannily unpick the fabric of the poverty stricken, mainly urban society of Ireland in the 1920s and its contradictions: its industrious sex industry (catering before 1922 to large garrisons of unpartnered soldiers such as the infamous Monto district of Dublin’s slums),  its repressive surveillance by both church and medical agencies, affecting both working class and the bourgeoisie, its racism and its misogyny.   The account of the wedding of O’Toole the publican and his wife is hilarious: both parties have wrong on their side. Threatened with death if he does not marry his sexually forward and pregnant partner (it had been dark in the drinking hole in Sackville St):

All he remembered was birds twittering and her shouting ‘Don’t ruin him for the honeymoon, hit him above the waist’. Leaving a trail of broken teeth he was dragged to the altar in the grip of two monsters (the bride and the father) who looked like kinfolk.
… Finally, when the priest asked ‘Will you take this woman – ’ a hired ventriloquist from Cork said, ‘I do.’ And he was done.

Why the ventriloquist has to be from Cork eludes me, but I do find it funny. It’s all in the detail, and there’s much to tickle one’s funny-bone in this novel, like the clever Chinese guide, or the many sexually hungry women (who should not be a source of merriment, but the contexts often make them so), or the panther who escapes the circus master, Guilio Cesar. The quality of the writing makes you wish that Milligan had taken novel-writing more seriously: the comedy is sharply observed, the prose can be lyrical and the satire simply takes it to a higher level.

Milligan hits his straps in dealing with the issue of the Boundary Commission and it is then that the novel gets real purchase. Having set up world of the pub in a welter of cracking dialogue, Milligan examines the division of Puckoon by a thick red pencil line and a forest of little flags on pins:

sticking pins in maps gave [the Boundary Commissioner] the secret power he craved…. He possessed his own pin-making machine and a small triangular printers’ guillotine for manufacturing flags. Power, what power this combination held!

The scene in which the line is finally drawn through Puckoon collectively by a series of goonish grotesques from circus-land, underlines the irrationality, the haste, the freedom from constraint of its creators.

‘Steady, someone’s pulling to the benefit of Ulster.’
‘Who gave that jerk?’
‘Ah, I felt that.’

We’re in Goon Show territory here, and I hope to see the movie of the novel some time, though the Goons notoriously never translated successfully into celluloid, even in puppet form.

The novel in its second half examines comically the ramifications of this capricious border-making exercise: the borderpost located in the churchyard; the bridge so divided that accidents on it needed to be heard in two jurisdictions; the reinterment of catholic departed in catholic soil when they’re found resting in protestant soil (and their need for a passport photo); and the pub that forces its northern drinkers into two square feet of its former bar,

*      *      *

That the illogicality of the Border Commission’s work is not just the stuff of comedy and not too far from the truth, but more importantly tragic in nature, is made abundantly clear in Tóibín’s Bad Blood, a memoir of a quixotic, fact-finding walk he did along the border in the mid-’80s when sectarian violence was vicious and tribal. He details many more pathologies than Spike Milligan does, and if ever one needed arguments against reinstating a hard border, this book provides them eloquently and passionately. It’s a tale of border smuggling of good, as well as drugs and arms. At its worst, it is a tale of fear: the dread of vicious murders and reprisals, on both sides, each series uglier and more triumphalist than the last. Tóibín is studiously even-handed in the ways he represents the warring parties, and his method is to seek in-depth interviews with witnesses from both sides, and at times, the talk of atrocities emerge from mouths of ordinary souls over tea and toast and Ulster fry, as for instance from the mother who had no idea of her son’s activities, and who was as a result languishing untried in Long Kesh. And Tóibín also makes clear that the problems have their base in inequities between the communities through a story of virtual white slavery and the hiring fairs which lasted until the 1930s, often the only possibility of work for extremely poor and very young children, who were vetted for their muscles like animals, worked long hours, fed on a substandard diet and deprived of basic literacy and numeracy.

Tóibín picks up some of the same quirky issues as Milligan had done in his pre-Troubles narrative of 15 years earlier: the border running through private dwellings (such that the lucky owners got two mail deliveries daily and the sofa was partly in the North and partly in the State and residents  could sleep in either country); cases of roads that go nowhere, or go somewhere trickily around the roadblocks; a tale of Dana who lived in Londonderry but won Eurovision for the Republic; and also of often not knowing, or being able to establish, exactly where the border did run.

The imprecision of border-making becomes the dynamic of relations in this liminal zone that Tóibín explores.  What is impressive about this memoir is how it demonstrates the wariness, the watchfulness, of the negotiations about tribal and religious and economic disparities between the two communities. Tóibín notices that the killings reported to him were premeditated and targeted, rarely random. However, cocky young men in targeting police stations on either side of the border were likely to forget infants learning in schools next door, who were equally in as much as, or more danger than, the ‘official’ targets. He suggests that some of the killing sprees were expressive of a macho youth culture, as likely to leave a massacre scene war-whooping as if in a western. In the context of today’s world, it sounds only slightly less barbaric what I recently read in a novel (by a Pakistani Islamic woman) about young men recruited for service in Jamaah Islamiyah and their behavior as they behead their victims.

In these days of Brexit, with all its talk of how to avoid re-establishing the hard border and avoiding the horrors that Tóibín documents, these are two literary works, one a comic novel and the other a grim documentary memoir, in different tonalities, that bear revisiting. I recommend them to your notice. Even in Tóibín’s memoir, there are moments where women, or communities, refuse to be divided and weather the tribal, political, religious and economic fall-out with a grim resoluteness and holding fast to the belief that they can create a better future with more mutual respect. It is drawing lines between the communities that creates the fears and anxieties. Erasing them has been liberating.

Frances Devlin-Glass

Frances taught Literature at Deakin University. She is a member of the Tinteán editorial collective.