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Living at the edge

Establishing the two new political units after partition involved separating all the matters of government – laws, taxation, services – that were formerly uniformly administered across the island under British rule but organised into regional administrative units and local networks of services like postal collection and delivery or welfare provision that spanned the county boundaries that later became the Irish border. This meant that partition not only involved establishing a distinct and separate system of government administration and infrastructure in the Free State and Northern Ireland but creating a new geography in which older networks and regional patterns were truncated by the border and new administrative regions and were contained within it. The process of setting up the new customs system happened reasonably quickly after the passing of new legislation in 1923. However, the practical arrangements for separating what had been the local and regional organisation of the provision of services – education, legal system or the postal service for example – by the state often happened more slowly and was often a more protracted process with local arrangements and sometimes local hold-ups that could cause significant disruption and sometimes hardship.

In the early twentieth century the provision of support to the needy, for example, was delivered through the system of regional poor law unions and regional workhouses, whose regions sometimes included areas now bisected by the border. After partition many people who formerly used the local institution – the workhouse, or the county homes and hospitals they became – could no longer do so if the institution was now in the separate jurisdiction across the border. Many people once close to sources of support had to travel much further for help because of the border. In other cases, the arrival of pensions was delayed as new arrangements were made to separate what were well-established, but after partition newly divided, districts for the collection and delivery of post.

The development of distinctive and separate systems of laws and regulations either side of the border also included new distinctions between professional qualifications which meant that those earned in one jurisdiction could not be used in the other. Many professional people, solicitors for example, found that they could no longer offer services in the local areas they once did since their qualifications were no longer recognised across the border.

Living on the border has not only meant living where two separate political units meet, but with the effects of now being at the edges of those jurisdictions and far from the centres of power in Dublin, Belfast or London where national policies are devised – policies that are applied uniformly within the country but often with particular local effects in the borderlands. This sense of geographical peripherality and the lack of central government interest in and understanding of the nature and problems of borderland life has long been a feature of the borderlands. Residents of the border regions of west Co. Tyrone and Co. Fermanagh in Northern Ireland have expressed their sense of neglect by governments in Belfast and London. Similarly, those living near the border in north-east Co. Cavan in Ireland report on their sense of isolation from the rest of Ireland, the lack of government interest in the problems of region and the damaging effects of the border on longstanding social, cultural and economic connections between this region and the adjoining parts of Co. Fermanagh.

But this is not just a matter of governmental neglect. Accounts of borderland life frequently talk about the general lack of understanding of what is means to live near the border among people living further away, including family relations and friends and those living relatively close by. They tell of the reluctance of family and friends further away to travel to the borderlands or cross the border especially during, but even before, the Troubles.

In contrast, for some people at least, their shared experience of routinely dealing with the border and all its inconveniences and more serious effects has created a shared sense of borderland identities. Some people report on the development of a ‘border cuteness’ – a shrewd and creative resourcefulness that comes from long experience of dealing with all the awkwardness of border and taking advantage of any opportunities it affords, from crossing the border to use pubs with longer opening hours in Ireland, or crossing the border to fill up one’s car where it is cheapest do so, to smuggling in all is different forms.

Yet, while there has generally been little wider understanding of the reality of borderland life, for some people living with the border has meant having to deal with the curiosity of those interested in what it means to have the border run right through one’s own home, farm or land. Many people welcome the recent interest in and new understandings of borderland life. But for others the intrusive or just disruptive aspects of being the subject of writers or academic researchers interest can be more of a problem than the border itself. In his account of walking along the border in Colm Tóibín writes of one man’s weariness with his life on the border being the subject of other people’s curiosity.

I sympathised with him for the inconvenience of living in two states. He said it wasn’t too bad; that wasn’t the worst part of it at all. What was the worst part of it, I asked. He looked across the road to the ditch and the hill beyond the ditch. He left a dramatic silence. The interviewers, he said, the reporters, the television cameras; since he was a child they had come to tell the story of the Murrays cut in town by the border. There wasn’t a single day went by but there wasn’t a knock on the door. Yesterday a bus pulled up outside and he had ‘seen them all leppin’ out and taking snaps’. People had come ‘from America and all over’ to see the house. They never had any peace, himself and his brothers. That was the worst thing, he said, and looked at me frankly. I understood, I said. I took his point. He went back into the house and I walked back towards Ballyconnell." (Colm Tóibín, Bad Blood: A Walk Along the Irish Border, Vintage, 1994, 109-110, first published 1987.)