Saturday, July 3, 2010

My Daily Commute - A Journey Through History!

Image taken from Strange Maps

Those of us condemned to the drudgery of commuting to and from work every day usually have very little to contemplate as we zone out for the journey to the office. Until recently my commute was like any other, unremarkable and dull. That was until I moved to Monaghan...

Now, to most eyes, my commute may still seem humdrum. True, it's a pleasant 30 minute drive through rolling drumlins and pastoral countryside, via the towns of Monaghan, Smithborough, Clones and finaly Belturbet. But what I find interesting about this drive (in a remarkably nerdy kind of way), is that I cross the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic 4 times, and for a short half-kilometre section of the road I am in a virtual enclave of the Republic within Northern Ireland, which has no direct contact with the rest of the state, but rather can only be accessed by road via the North. Effectively, this means that this semi-enclave cannot easily be reached by An Garda Siochana (the Irish police force), nor can it be patrolled by the Police Service of Northern Ireland. While it is not exactly lawless, this pocket of territory has been used for a number of nefarious activities over the years, and it is still apparently the place to go locally if you like cockfights or other bloodsports (who doesn't?. I mean, c'mon, nothing says a classy evening to me like bloodsports!)

Similarly, each morning you can see the "donuts" burned in rubber onto the road by young men with too much horsepower and not enough brains, who zip along this border route in the dead of night, safe in the knowledge that for police in the South, without road access to the enclave, speed traps here would be a logistical nightmare, while on the Northern side of the border, police checkpoints run the risk of attracting violence from dissident Republicans.

What strikes me most, though, are the signs scattered along this route as to how artificial the border is, not just from a Republican viewpoint, but also how the division of our island has resulted in communities that once contained both Protestants and Catholics, Unionists and Nationalist, being divided, with one section of the community artificially removed, or withering away over time. In truth, this phenomena has seemed to be far more common among the Protestant community on both sides of the border; in the South, communities which had been in the locality for nearly 400 years have slowly disappeared since 1922, marrying into Catholic families or choosing to emigrate; while on the Northern side of the border the change has been more rapid, as the inter-religious violence that coloured the Troubles has led some Unionists to pull back from areas bordering the Republic, retreating further North to where greater numbers of their co-religionists live.

One of the most poignant signs of this change is a Church of Ireland (Anglican) church located in the enclave in of the Republic, but which I would guess would have been built over the course of the late 19th Century to serve the community in the area. It stands alone, a long way from the nearest village (which is now in Northern Ireland), and only once have I seen any activity at the church, a funeral. Judging by the mourners, the deceased that day was obviously of an older generation, and I noticed that every car parked outside this church, which was remember South of the border, had Northern plates. I couldn't but wonder had the deceased grown up in the area, either before or shortly after partition, when there still would have been a sizable Protestant community. Now, were they being returned to the church where they worshipped as a child, mourned by friends and family who had also felt that it was necessary to leave this place all those years ago? Was this area a place where they could not live, but could only return to in death?

In Belturbet, too, the town where I work, there is signs of a once thriving community now gone; an Orange Hall that is now only empty and unused, restored by the Irish state with a view to being turned into a museum. The local pub has a picture of the main street taken in 1910, in which one can clearly see, hanging from a house, the sign "UVF Meets Here" (the UVF being a Protestant paramilitary organisation opposed to Irish independence.) And while, as an Irish Catholic, I obviously find the basic premise of Protestant supremacy, on which the Orange Order and the UVF are based, difficult to stomach, these little hints of people now gone still make me wonder could partition and its aftermath not have been better handled. What position would the island be in now, if the Southern state at least had done more to calm the concerns of its Protestant population? Would we closer to unity or still divided? And, as a Southerner, am I just naive in my thinking?

If you would like to learn more about the enclave and are, like me, a bit of a nerd, see the great discussion at Strange Maps.

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