Irish Writers on Secrets and Borders

All over the world, borders are in the news. For politicians, the argument centres on the physical movement of people and objects. But there are other, intangible, aspects to such barriers.

The idea of border country can be attractive to writers. It’s a mysterious, in-between place; a romantic, shifting landscape where normal rules don’t apply.

Such romanticism is fine in fiction, but more problematic in reality, as a recent event at the London Irish Centre explored. With the Irish border again making headlines, ‘Writing Ireland: Borderlands and Brexit’, saw novelists Neil Hegarty (no relation) Andrea Carter and Anthony Quinn discuss how to make sense of something that defined their early lives, and is threatening to return.

Hegarty, author of Inch Levels and the forthcoming Distemper, was ‘uncomplicatedly pleased’ to have been born north of the border, in Derry. ‘It’s a precise place, has a precise sense of itself,’ he said. Events he witnessed in the Troubles, and stories that he later heard, have influenced his work. He read a passage from Inch Levels in which terrified pedestrians are sheltering from a sniper. The horror and fear were palpable.

Andrea Carter grew up in the Irish Midlands and moved north to the Inishowen peninsula, the setting for her Inishowen Mysteries crime novels, to be adapted for TV next summer. Among Irish female crime writers who grew up in the 1980s, she thought, there is anger, and mixed feelings. She also felt that still, especially in rural communities, the border’s legacy had not been dealt with. ‘Old secrets are not being told,’ she said. One of the reasons was ‘a sense of loyalty’.

The writer’s responsibility for respecting a shared history that’s still alive, even if unspoken, was a key aspect of the discussion. Crime writer Anthony Quinn, whose work has been described as ‘the noirest of noir’, now lives back where he grew up, near the border. He felt ‘blessed and cursed to have lived during those times’. The barrier now exists only in terms of folklore, he said. But this is ‘rich fictional territory for a writer’. In his work, he tries to be fair to both sides, and to honour the past. He has found that people bring him stories – they want their voices to be heard; to be able to move on. ‘It’s only by letting light and air in that you can begin to heal.’

What is it about Irish people, asked a questioner, that they’re so good at keeping secrets? The audience responded with an affirmative laugh. Colonisation means you have to keep your cards close to your chest, said Hegarty. ‘Everyone is playing their part.’ One of the problems with Northern Ireland, he added, is that ‘the stories aren’t allowed to be aired, dealt with, set aside gently’.

Working on his latest book, Hegarty had to add information about the border for non-Irish readers. Twenty years ago, it was a physical, manned presence; today you can’t tell where the north ends and the south begins. ‘It’s terrifying that that would change,’ said Carter. ‘It frightens me.’

The evening was a good-humoured and witty discussion. As writers, the participants recognized that their experience, despite its traumas, had benefited their art; and was safely in the past. But there was no disguising the tension of the subject, and the fear that the chaos of current politics – despite the glib assurances of politicians – could bring a very different future.

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2 thoughts on “Irish Writers on Secrets and Borders

  1. You make such a good point about borders and writers. Having lived in the Republic of Ireland for two and half years in the early 2000s, I can completely understand the nervousness around Brexit. Though there was no physical border when we were there, there was always a feeling of ‘otherness’ crossing into the North. We lived overlooking the River Boyne, a stone’s throw from the scene of the important battle. Feelings still ran very high. And though we had many lovely ‘friends’, we were always considered Anglo-Saxon blow-ins (despite my half Spanish blood and Catholic upbringing) and only ever invited into a Catholic home the evening before we returned to England.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Jenny. Yes, it was fascinating to hear how Irish writers who grew up with the physical border feel about the prospect of it returning. History still felt very present, as you say. There was a sense that there are many stories waiting to be told.

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