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Notes from an author: Garrett Carr

The troubled past and uncertain future of the Irish borderland comes to life on an epic walking tour exploring the 300-mile divide between north and south

Notes from an author: Garrett Carr
Garrett Carr. Illustration: Jacqui Oakley

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Nobody thinks of Ireland’s border as a destination. It’s barely even considered a place at all. The border is usually thought of in the abstract — as an inconvenience, a zone of lingering criminality or just as one of history’s loose ends, untidy and awkward. It’s there to be passed over, in a car or bus, while travelling elsewhere. When I began hiking the border, I didn’t think of myself as a tourist; the land was too wounded and unwelcoming for that. I saw my journey as a research task.

The border is inextricably linked with The Troubles, the period of violent territorial conflict that enshrouded Northern Ireland from 1968 until 1998. I set out along this haunted landscape to explore its recent history as well as its deeper past, visiting ancient tombs and standing stones, battlegrounds and smuggling routes. I was writing a book and making a map to illustrate it, creating a portrait of the line separating the Republic of Ireland and the UK. I was seeing the border so others wouldn’t have to — but now, having completed the journey, I’m surprised to find myself saying: ‘It’s wonderful; you should go and see it’.

Despite the area’s bloodied past, much of the border country is preserved, unspoilt. It’s fine irony: from years of threat and violence, tranquil — often beautiful — spots have bloomed. I’m sure people will soon begin to appreciate the area where the border weaves through the River Erne. Ireland’s biggest water system pours through rolling hills, creating dozens of islands and winding waterways. Now the peace process has taken hold, many new bridges have been built across border rivers —  but here, a boat is still the best way to explore. Travelling by canoe, I was struck by the silence. There were few buildings, no people; just banks of trees, drifting swans and the occasional field of cattle raising their heads as I passed by. 

On the ground, the border is invisible. Although it was never fenced, the line is easy to pick out in places, often piggybacking on natural features. Cuilcagh Mountain, on the border of County Fermanagh and County Cavan (in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland respectively) is perfectly shaped to play frontier; a three-mile-long ridge, it stands alone on an expanse of blanket bog. There’s an official walkers’ route, with a wooden walkway that keeps you off the swamped ground, but I took the border-way, following the line directly up the crest of the mountain. It’s not an easy climb: the frost-shattered scree shifts underfoot. At the summit stands an ancient cairn; climbers reaching the top of the mountain traditionally add a stone to the pile, together creating the highest point of Ireland’s border. All around, miles of hills, bogs and farms can be seen and, closer by, great boulders of mudstone stand against the ridge. It’s easy to imagine how even centuries ago, Cuilcagh represented a frontier to people living on either side. 

Created in the early 20th century, the Irish border was drawn over pre-existing county boundaries that, in turn, had developed along the landmarks of older divisions. Prehistoric tombs did not just intern the dead but, most likely, marked the edge of kingdoms, too. On the limestone plateau of Cavan Burren Park,  through which the border runs, you can walk among such tombs — relics from the age of legends. The Giant’s Grave was built from large sandstone slabs around 4,000 years ago; another, the Lightning Stone, is a boulder that is said to have been split in two when druids invoked a storm. Anywhere else in Ireland, a place of such rich history would be developed for tourists, perhaps offering guided tours, a cafe and a visitors’ centre. But Cavan Burren has largely been left alone, and you’re likely to meet few other hikers on your journey.

There are many such discoveries to be made on the border. This isn’t an untouched wilderness — you’ll often hear the rattle of a tractor engine — but there’s a sense of the new here. The peace process has changed the way we look at the dividing line. No longer just a symbol of conflict, it can be appreciated as a living, functioning place. Most striking of all is that a place so loaded with history can feel so much like fresh ground. 

Garrett Carr explored and mapped Ireland’s border for his book, The Rule of the Land: Walking Ireland’s Border, published by Faber. RRP: £13.99. garrettcarr.net

Published in the April 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)