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Living with the Border

The things that people had to go through along the border was really ... a lot of hassle. You lived with it because you knew nothing else around you, just comply with it all and that's it. You just had to live with it, and stay there." Brendan Boyle, Tattymore, Co. Fermanagh
The border was a barrier, but it was also very ... negotiable." Éamonn Ó Ciardha, Derry
Border people know the price of everything. And the value of everything as well." Mamie Quigley, Strabane
We shared something, we were borderers ... And that is an identity in itself." Donald McDonald, Omagh

The Irish border is deeply symbolic and politically significant since it marks the boundary between Northern Ireland and Ireland. But for those who live and have lived near this political boundary the border is also a matter of the ordinary efforts of dealing with its practical presence in everyday life.

This has changed over time but one central aspect of borderland life has for long been the experience of living where two political jurisdictions, with all their particular policies, laws and procedures, meet. Where people live in relation to the border means being subject to a different set of state laws and regulations, systems of education, taxation and state benefits. Though laws and regulations have not differed radically on either side of the border, these differences have been and continue to matter in the borderlands where many aspects of people’s lives span the border.

Life along the border was not only affected by the reorganisation and separation of the functions of the governments on either side. It was also profoundly shaped by the ways in which the border affected people’s ability to move freely across it in their daily life. Because of the historical relationship between Britain and Ireland the migration of people between the two countries has not been subject to immigration controls. However, though the Irish border has not been policed in terms of immigration, the ability of people to travel back and forth to family, friends, and work across the border has been deeply affected by the regulation of travel across it.

As with most political borders there is no continuous barrier along the Irish border stopping people from passing from one jurisdiction to another. People have always been able to cross the border where it runs through fields, forested areas or open country. Yet the use of roads on foot, bicycle, cart and later motor vehicles has obviously been most convenient for most people. In practical terms, therefore, regulating movement across the border has been a matter of controlling travel by road and by car.

This regulation of cross border road travel was initially bound up with official attempts to control the movement of goods from one jurisdiction into the other from the early 1920s, and subsequently with attempts by the UK and Northern Irish security forces to control the movement of paramilitaries across the border. Both had significant but different affects on borderland life. From the early 1970s to the early 1990s crossing the border meant being subject to both customs and army or police checkpoints. For those living near the border a short local journey could mean several stops for inspection. See: The Troubles and borderland life

They have also lived with the different ways in which the movement of people across the border has been regulated or restricted. The Irish border has never been completely impermeable but it has always involved some restriction on mobility firstly because of custom restrictions and then because of the closure of most border roads and army checkpoints on approved routes from the early 1970s to the mid 1990s. The militarization of the border and paramilitary violence along the border, North and South, shaped borderland life over the course of the Troubles. Movement across the border is now unrestricted.

This varying degree of permeability over the course of the twentieth century and early twentieth century means that the border has had different sort of presence in people’s lives. Youngest generations may have no memory of the military presence on the border. Their parents experienced the particular impact of the Troubles in the borderlands. Oldest generations may remember the pre-Troubles years of custom restrictions and cross-border friendships and family connections. The effects of the border in ordinary life have also varied in different regions of the borderlands. In many cases the border cut across longstanding local and regional geographies of social and family connections shaped by the topography and cut off towns and villages from their hinterlands, but it had less dramatic impact in other areas.

Until recently the impact of the border on everyday life has been largely overlooked. The broad themes and specific experiences that feature here draw on a small selection of the accounts of borderland life collected as part of the Borderlands project. We are very grateful to all those who participated.